Second Life To Teach Social Skills to People on the Autistic Spectrum

Torley Linden speaking at Bounce for Autism in Second Life
Image by Ravenelle under a Attribution 2.0 License

Image: Torley Linden is a well-known Second Life resident with Asperger’s Syndrome. Here he’s speaking in Second Life at the Bounce for Autism event in 2008.

Last night I went to an event that combines several of my interests: gaming and virtual worlds with teaching and accessibility. The new Animation and Games Development Specialist Group of the British Computing Society was holding a talk in London with four speakers on the topic of virtual world and gaming for health professionals. Of particular interest were the following two talks:

Nigel Newbutt will present a brief overview of assistive technologies: virtual environments for people with autism. This will include an analysis of VEs that have been developed with the specific aim for users with autism. Within this talk a very brief overview of what autism is will be presented, and some of the advantages and issues that surround the development and use of VEs for users with autism.

Mick Donegan will present on the use of computer technology for people with ‘locked in syndrome’. This will include an overview of assistive technology for people with communication difficulties and how existing and new technologies can help people with physical disabilities.

Unfortunately, two of the four planned speakers were not there, including Mick Donegan. Emmanuel Pourreuix, one of my current H810 students attended. He recorded the session with the permission of the presenters, so a transcript might be available at a later date.

Nigel Newbutt’s presentation was more of a literature review in the area of virtual worlds and autistic spectrum disorders. The main tenet was that people would be immersed in virtual versions of real-life situations to help them become accustomed and comfortable with those situations. Newbutt is hoping to do studies that show social skills gained in virtual worlds can be generalized to real-world situations. That sounds really useful and he said that, while there had been some work in using virtual reality or virtual environments with autistic children, very little of it was obviously generalizable. Newbutt’s following up the hypothesis of Fusar-Poli et al (2008) that Second Life could be an environment that levels the playing field for those with autism by offering an environment for social skills rehearsal. If you are interested in virtual worlds, especially Second Life, as an environment for those with autism, Fusar-Poli looked to have several other relevant journal publications on work in this area.

I put assistive technology in quotation marks in the above paragraph, because using virtual worlds in this way does not fit my conceptions about what assistive technology is. What Newbutt was proposing was more a methodology for teaching skills than using technology to actively assist in real-time, which is how most assistive technology works. I am not belittling the idea. I think anything that allows us to bridge the communicative gap that exists is great. I am just questioning whether it should be identified as assistive technology. Perhaps that is open to debate and I should broaden my definition, although my definitions seems to fit in well with the literature.

The most interesting part of the presentation was the list of questions that could be investigated. In particular, how would students with autistic spectrum disorders represent themselves with avatars and why? Someone in the audience was wondering at what age people at different points on the autistic spectrum were able to differentiate between Second Life as a virtual environment and themselves. To me both questions hint at the “theory of mind” issue that characterizes much of the literature relating to autism. Basically, the theory of mind is the ability to recognize that you have beliefs, ideas, and emotions that are different from those of others (Wikipedia 2010). If you are interested in that, a good starting place is the Wikipedia article for an overview and then explore the references provided. How people perceive themselves and others is a really fascinating area, regardless of the people involved. I would love to see more work on that.

Nigel Newbutt (a very Second Life kind of name) will be conducting studies in Second Life as part of his Ph.D. work at University College Dublin under the direction of Goodman, Parsons, and Morie. One of the things Newbutt mentioned in his presentation was work done by Fabri and Moore (2005) in collaborative virtual environments by embedding a emotionally expressive 3D face avatars in conversations. With the exception of disgust, the Ekman universal six emotions could readily be represented and recognized by people with autism even with very crude graphical depictions of facial expressions. Newbutt’s thesis topic builds on this: “How can facial motion capture be used effectively in Virtual Environments to help improve communication in people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders?” SMARTlab, the group Newbutt belongs to, seems to be investigating other facets of virtual reality technologies and autistic spectrum disorders, so watch that space in the future.


Fabri, M. & Moore, D. (2005) ‘The Use of Emotionally Expressive Avatars in Collaborative Virtual Environments’, in Proceedings of the Joint Symposium on Virtual Social Agents at Social Intelligence and Interaction in Animals, Robots and Agents (AISB’05), Hatfield, United Kingdom, April 12-15, The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour. pp:88-94. Also available from:

Fusar-Poli, P. et al. (2008) ‘Second Life Virtual World: A Heaven for Autistic People?’, Medical Hypotheses, 71 (6), pp:980-981. Also available from: (Accessed November 9, 2010).

Wikipedia. (2010) Theory of Mind, [online] web page, Wikipedia. Available from: (Accessed November 9, 2010).


2 responses to “Second Life To Teach Social Skills to People on the Autistic Spectrum

  1. I wrote a paper published by the OU in the RELIVE conference proceedings in 2008 which discusses this issue among several other potential benefits of virtual worlds for people with disabilities or impairments. You can find it at on pages 17-26 For #H810 people it might make a good overview to this area

  2. Hi, thanks for publishing this!, I have Aspgers Syndrome, I have always found second life a way of developing soclization without having to give eyecontact, the ablity to talk normally to someone makes me extremely happy insted of being told by an employer “LOOK AT ME WHEN IM TALKING!”, im glad others are benfiting too to this pioneering technology.

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