Games such as Second Life may provide a great opportunity for opening social doors for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). This virtual world allows users to create characters and interact socially with others in an online world. In a recent article, CNN reports on how this can be beneficial. Created by an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, Naughty Auties is a world where people with ASD can interact with one another in a more relaxed, less socially intimidating environment. This sounds like a great solution for teaching social interaction and working on social skills.
This kind of solution for helping teens and adults with ASD may end up causing more harm than good. In worlds such as Second Life, there are an unfortunate group of people called “griefers” whose sole purpose is to cause harm to others. These people literally seek out vulnerable people in these online worlds and deliberately disrupt the world and cause harm, just because they can. In worlds such as Second Life, there is no supervision, there are no limits, and anyone can get in and do whatever they want and say whatever they want. This opens the doors for griefers and others will the wrong intentions. For the ASD community, they are especially vulnerable due to their difficulties with understanding subtle social cues and often, language difficulties.
Although I support the idea of providing a virtual world for working on social skills and understanding, I am nervous about an open-ended world where people with disabilities are completely exposed and open to griefers. Instead, I would like to see something similar that is not open to anyone wanting to join, and that operates in a more controlled space perhaps with computer players (like in the SIMS) or with invite-only people that have been screened. The other issue to consider is how effective this kind of environment is for increasing skills, with no data collection or research on the effectiveness of doing this for someone with ASD, I would hesitate. Research is clearly needed on this kind of program, particularly if it is described as an intervention or skill-building program.
In general, I think the idea is great, but people should be aware of the potential risks before jumping into a world with so many risks.