This is a travel and research log of Dr. Eiko Ikegami’s journey into the virtual and real worlds of autistic avatars. She has studied the experiences of autistic people in the virtual world of Second Life since 2008, finding that many autistic persons communicate more easily through avatars – that their talents and personalities shine through.
In 2017, Dr. Ikegami published the book Hyper-world (NTT Publishing, Tokyo) in the Japanese language, which captured the attention of NHK TV(the Japanese equivalent of the BBC), to produce a documentary film about her work.
With a crew from NHK TV, Dr. Ikegami traveled across the United States interviewing autistic people that she, along with her research assistant Robert Proverb, met through the virtual world of Second Life over the course of dozens of interviews and more than one hundred community discussions. This blog serves as a record of the making of the documentary, but also a window into the larger and ongoing work of exploring diverse kinds of intelligence, in this case Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in our quickly changing, technology-based world.
(Image © Nerissa Escanlar)
“Many autistic persons communicate more easily through avatars in virtual worlds; their talents and personalities are allowed to shine through.” Eiko Ikegami
Eiko notes in her interview with NHK that
“The 20th century has been a century of discovering the values of diversity in various cultures, ethnicities, and gender/sexuality. But in the 21st century, we are about to get into the age of diversity in types of intelligence. We will soon have to face up to interacting with various forms of artificial intelligence (AI) in everyday life. But before dealing with full fledged interactions between human and artificial forms of intelligence, why not appreciate and discover diverse forms of human intelligence? It is at this point that the idea of “neurodiversity”, appreciating diversity in human neuro-structures, kicks in. In meeting with autistic avatars in virtual worlds, I began to learn about the world views of autistic people, which shook up my own taken-for-granted cognitive framework.”
Eiko Ikegami: Principle Investigator, Robert Proverb: Research Assistant, Luis Tsukayama-Cisneros: Guest Blogger and Photographer (unless otherwise noted), Stephanie B. Currier: Contributing Editor, Consulting, and SL Screen Captures
Date: 13 June, 2017- June 30, 2017, August 2017 (Shooting in New York City, Rogersville TN, Princeton NJ, Little Rock AR, Jackson WY, El Centro CA, Kyoto Japan). Photos from June 20-28 are taken by Luis Tsukayama-Cisneros unless otherwise noted. The text was written by Stephanie B. Currier and Luis Tsukayama-Cisneros, supplemented by observations provided by Dr. Ikegami.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is generally considered to be a communication disorder. In virtual worlds however, many autistic people are able to express themselves smoothly and creatively, tailoring their preferences to include or exclude stimulus that may otherwise overwhelm their senses: taking breaks without seeming unpleasant or unsocial, working with technologies and comfort objects without distracting others, and more easily finding their own flow of experience.
Contrary to the view that autistic people are less able to empathize, or have less desire to be make connections, in Second Life many autistic avatars meet every week to share stories and information, compare challenges, as well as to warmly support and encourage one another. Their humor, talents, and intelligence shine freely through their often dazzling avatars.
Through these avatars, and previous experiences in virtual worlds with Brigadoon Explorers and other vibrant communities, Dr. Ikegami has come to understand how much there is yet to know about the many diverse expressions of intelligence which, like Autism, may be best seen along a spectrum.
It was a rare privilege to travel across the United States to meet a few members of the group who were happy to open their homes and lives to such a big adventure.
Starting with NHK’s arrival in New York.
Eiko Ikegami is also a founding member of YHouse.
Next Page: Meet the Autistic Avatars