Virtual world teaches real-world skills

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If home is where the heart is, then home for a dozen people with Asperger Syndrome could be a 16-acre island blessed with lush gardens and rolling green hills.

The island is called “Brigadoon,” but unlike its literary namesake, this place is real — or real enough in a 21st century way. “Brigadoon” belongs to a public virtual world called “Second Life,” a popular online 3-D environment frequented by tens of thousands of users.

Game helps people with Asperger’s practice socializing,

By Tom Loftus
Columnist
MSNBC
Updated: 6:59 a.m. ET Feb. 25, 2005

If home is where the heart is, then home for a dozen people with Asperger Syndrome could be a 16-acre island blessed with lush gardens and rolling green hills.

The island is called “Brigadoon,” but unlike its literary namesake, this place is real — or real enough in a 21st century way. “Brigadoon” belongs to a public virtual world called “Second Life,” a popular online 3-D environment frequented by tens of thousands of users.

“Brigadoon” is a real-world experiment in social skills made virtual, a private enclave limited to a select mixture of caregivers and individuals with Asperger Syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism. The inhabitants, or “Dooners” as they call themselves, enjoy the same privileges as those in the more public arenas of “Second Life.” They are free to create their own digital representations of themselves, called “avatars,” build virtual houses and seek out friends. And, most importantly, they are free to create a “second life” with a level of social interaction that, for reasons of their condition, has been hard to come by in their real lives.

Is gaming a good thing?
Talk of video gaming can set off feelings of unease among parents — no one wants a kid to be glued to a screen for hours on end. But the stakes for children with Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders — who have difficulties with social interaction — tend to be higher.

At issue is the importance of developing enriching personal relationships and becoming a part of society. While video games can be educational and entertaining, their reputation as a solitary activity can present an impediment to progress for people with autistic disorders by limiting their exposure to social situations.

Researchers are also concerned that playing video games could simply become one of the many repetitive activities that an affected child engages in.

“One feature that highlights the risk of video games is that the behavior of children with autism can be repetitive. They like sameness and routine,” says Sally Ozonoff, an associate professor of psychiatry at the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis. This preference for repetition and familiarity often limits their experiences and prevents them from learning how to adapt to new situations.

But if used correctly, video game technology could be beneficial. “Children with autism have a natural inclination to video games and television,” Ozonoff adds. “The goal is to try to exploit that inclination therapeutically.”

New technology in the works
Researchers around the world are now attempting to do just that. At the University of Victoria in British Columbia, cognitive psychologist James Tanaka is using a custom-built game called “Let’s Face It!” to teach facial recognition. Actually a suite of mini-games, the program uses photos, sounds and positive feedback as part of a scoring system to encourage kids with autism to learn.

“You can have kids do an exercise, but they usually don’t have the richness or the continuity [of the video game],” says Tanaka.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow Caledonian University are creating video games to study cognitive skills in children with autism using a revolutionary interface: gesture recognition software that registers the players’ movements and transfers them to the screen.

“From my work, I know that a lot of children [with autism] have production skills we never would expect,” says Maggie McGonigle, leader of the project and an expert on non-verbal communication. “So I’m hoping that language-like skills are locked up in their brain even if they can’t speak.”

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