Asperger's Therapy Hits Second Life

"Any treatment, no matter where we do it, no matter how we do it, needs to incorporate strategies for other settings, and if it doesn't do that then it's not useful," she said. "What we would hope to see is that what these individuals are learning will help them understand social situations, feelings of others, their own motivation and will help them negotiate real life social situations. You don't want them to just be able to interact via a computer."

Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, the director of the Kelly O'Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, agreed.

"The good thing about this model is that it's probably a highly motivating model," Manning said. "Online things in general are much easier formats for a lot of patients. They don't have to incorporate facial expressions or gestures but just have to type."

The flip side, according to Manning-Courtney, would be if patients had trouble moving beyond that online environment into a real one. Asperger's patients are notoriously inflexible. They can learn what sarcasm is, for example, but if someone uses it in a slightly different context than what they were taught, they might not be able to recognize it.

That inflexibility and tendency toward obsession makes Dr. Susan M. Anderson, the director of the autism program at the University of Virginia Children's Medical Center, wonder if the online nature of the game might be problematic.

"Asperger's kids love computers anyway. They play video games a lot, and it's tough to separate in a way," Anderson said. "I wonder whether you would be able to do it in other ways with a therapist."

But Chapman is undeterred and hopes that the Second Life isn't the end of the road for virtual socialization for Asperger's patients. The center is developing another program like Second Life but that will allow avatars to express -- and help Asperger's patients ability to detect -- a broader range of emotional depth.

"Second Life can't see emotions," she said. "We're moving to a new platform where we can teach the basic fundamental emotions, teach what happy is."

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