Most wouldn’t imagine using a virtual world such as “World of Warcraft” in their daily homeschool schedule, but perhaps you should. Virtual Worlds are built upon many of the same social theories we encounter in our every day, real world lives. As a result, they can be fantastic resources for helping students with special needs, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, overcome some of the challenges they face.
Every day, we use symbols to navigate the world around us. Symbols such as speed limits, road signs, logos, etc. serve as tools to help us physically navigate, while body language, tone, and inflection serve as tools to help us regulate our social interactions.
Those with Autism, and other disorders on the autism spectrum, have great difficulty with social situations and social norms. Anxiety regarding social outings can be debilitating, making it nearly impossible for some to function in certain social situations. Virtual worlds allow those with these types of needs a way to navigate a real social setting from the comfort of their safe zone. They have the ability to learn social norms, symbols, and interactions — yet they are able to remain in a safe and comfortable environment. They can then take the social lessons learned in the virtual world with them into the real world.
As a homeschool mom, I have seen the benefits of using virtual worlds firsthand. I taught a “Social Theory in World of Warcraft” class for a homeschool co-op. A few of the students have autism, and their mothers reported great difficulty in social settings. Over the course of the semester, these students made huge gains in socialization in the real world due to their play in the virtual world. They had to open up and ask others for help in the virtual world, or actively take part in social situations, which helped them to overcome a great deal of social anxiety. They were then able to take these lessons into the real world.
There are some schools and organizations who have caught on to the growing popularity of virtual worlds, and have seized upon the benefit of using virtual worlds in educational and world settings. For example, IBM utilizes a virtual office building where each employ has a digital avatar of themselves. They are able to hold board meetings, etc. as if they were in the office, yet they are home or elsewhere. And it doesn’t just help those with disorders such as autism. Think about those who have physical disabilities or other needs. Any one who has difficulty navigating the social confines of the real world can first overcome their anxieties in the virtual world, then transfer those lessons into the real world. The possibilities are truly endless!
There are a number of virtual worlds from which to choose that cover a variety of age levels, and as with any online interaction, parental guidance and supervision is suggested. From Minecraft and World of Warcraft, to Animal Jam, there’s a virtual world out there waiting for you and your student to explore!
Missica has been a loving homeschool mom to her 9 year old son, who has autism. She earned her degree in Sociology from Marshall University, and she holds minors in criminal justice, meteorology, history, and French. You can reach her blog at The Open Window-Autism Blog