As our world continues to evolve and move towards an ever-growing virtual one, my most recent interviewee inspired the following question: “what are the pros of a virtual world for autistic adults?” Online and virtual interactions are becoming our new norm.
This movement towards a virtual realm has been accelerated by the growth in technology as well as the current COVID-19 pandemic. While some see this as a form of disconnect, others may see the virtual sphere as holding some benefits.
For example, it provides:
- Control of environments
- Less pressure in terms of neurotypical social expectations such as making eye contact and other neurotypical social cues.
- Opportunities for work, creativity and socialising.
Which could be seen as advantageous for the autistic adult community.
What is a virtual Youtuber?
With the growth of this virtual world, comes the influx of new opportunities for creativity and work. For example, becoming a virtual Youtuber is a relatively new concept that has grown a lot over the last few years. The interviewee for this article is a Malaysian virtual Youtuber: Murazrai who describes a virtual Youtuber as an “A content creator which uses a virtual avatar”.
He shared his story with me as well as different aspects of being an autistic virtual Youtuber.
I asked him what inspired him to become a virtual Youtuber?
“Initially I was trying to become a non-virtual Youtuber, but I’m concerned about showing my face on camera so I donned a hat and a cloth mask, but my sister called me a weirdo so I quit the idea. Then, after a bad day at work, I decided to become a virtual Youtuber to eventually be able to escape from traditional employment.” Murazrai says.
I asked him: “Does being autistic have any connection to you wanting to become a virtual Youtuber?”
“If I’d say that there’s no connection at all I would be lying. But I’d say that the connection isn’t exactly deep. It’s all about discovery. I just happened to discover about the concept earlier than most people and more open to new ways. “ said Murazrai
Are autistic people drawn to VR?
I came across an article that claims: that many autistic people are drawn to VR because of “ a feeling of invisibility” (Musser, 2018).
I asked Murazrai his thoughts on this:
“I can’t say for others, but I’m not drawn to VR thanks to the risk of side effects and the sheer cost of buying VR equipment. That being said, the feeling of invisibility is something that can trigger me to do something, be it to get that feeling or to get away from that feeling. It depends on how I feel on any particular day” Murazrai said.
Are there benefits of a virtual world for autistic adults?
According to an article done by Edtech (not a fan of the language used in the article however it does show some interesting results) research is indicating that virtual reality is already being used as a positive tool in the lives of autistic children and adults. New studies suggest that VR could help children to overcome certain phobias as well as helping autistic adults with what is expected in job interviews (Smith, 2021).
As interesting as this is, this study indicates how VR can help autistic people adapt to a neurotypical world but what about using this technology to help neurotypicals see the autistic perspective? In the previously mentioned article, it included an interview with an autistic artist based in London Sonja Zelić who said this about VR:
“Until a predominantly neurotypical society/culture puts in the equivalent amount of effort and time to understand us and listen to us as we put into understanding and listening to it, we will continue to be disabled.”
The writer of this article mentioned that maybe VR could help to “right the balance”.
I asked Murazrai what his thoughts were on this and he said:
“Understanding is the second step. The first step is the willingness of attempting to understand. After understanding what autistic people go through in their lives, externally and internally, the acceptance of the understanding matters more. This is something that the article itself acknowledges.”
I agree with Murazrai, the first step is the willingness of neurotypical people to try to understand and see the autistic perspective, if one is not willing to try to understand, they will not arrive at understanding or acceptance.
Could VR help neurotypicals see the autistic perspective?
I asked Murazrai: “In your opinion do you think VR could help neurotypicals see the world from an autistic perspective which in turn could lead to more understanding and acceptance?”
He said: “I can’t be sure about this. Just because they have experienced what is supposedly what we have gone through doesn’t mean they will accept such an experience. I think it’s more important to educate them about why acceptance is necessary.”
I asked Murazrai: “from an autistic perspective, what do you think the benefits of technology and VR are?”
“I’d say they can connect autistic people to new avenues, be it physically or socially in which they are excluded before due to either sensory issues or social isolation. They are not substitutes to real-life experience, but at least they have something” was his response.
I found a study that claims that online communication is more comfortable for autistic adults, the study found that: the participants were able to use the internet to lessen the emotional, social and time pressures experienced in offline situations.
Factors that influenced the views that communication via the internet is more comfortable were: visual anonymity, a different and more flexible pace of communication, and the permanence of text (Benford and Standen, 2009).
I asked Murazrai his thoughts on this:
“This isn’t surprising. Real-life communication is multi-faceted and requires paying attention to multiple small details which can be interpreted differently. With online communication, only semantics matter, which means there’s only one aspect of communication in play. Also, you can edit a text before you send one. Speaking has no such luxury” was his response.
I came across another study that claimed that “some of the benefits of social media for autistic people include more control over how they talk and engage with others online and a greater sense of calm during interactions. Social media provides opportunities for autistic people to find others on the autism spectrum and form a stronger identity as part of the autism community” (Hassrick et al., 2021).
Therefore there may be some pros to the online world for autistic adults and further research is definitely required as with all other spheres of life. I like the way the narrative is starting to change though and include the autistic perspective, even though it is not enough, it’s a start.
How does being autistic, influence being a virtual Youtuber?
“Unlike most virtual YouTubers, I integrate my real-life identity into my virtual YouTuber channel. The main reason is that I don’t want to play a character that is way too close to autistic masking. Even my model is based on my real-life appearance.”
Even though Murazrai has that element of anonymity as a virtual Youtuber he prefers not to mask or “play a character”. I think that it is important and could possibly help other autistic people feel more comfortable with unmasking.
The importance of special interests
In previous blog articles: we saw the importance of special interests for autistic people and here again with Murazrai:
I asked Murazrai: “do you think that being autistic has played a role in this creative process or content creation?”
His response was:
“To an extent, a lot of my choices in content creation come from the fact that I choose to use my special interests as my content. While I’m not averse to popular things, I prefer to dive deep into the vast world of Japanese freeware games. Freem alone has over 27,000 games and that doesn’t count games released in other platforms and browser games.”
How has being a virtual Youtuber affected your social life?
“I have made new online friends which are mostly virtual YouTubers and a few game developers. I used to be a loner and am still one, but I’m glad that I have made new social connections. But this also has forced me to see less of my real-life friends as content creation is a time-consuming endeavour that leaves you having less time to socialize, at least in real life.”
“My social life is mostly online, with my real-life friends being limited to a few players that frequent an arcade that I used to go to. Now that I am unemployed, I don’t have the money to pay a visit and we merely interact over WeChat instead” said Murazrai.
Here is another aspect of the online sphere that might be beneficial for autistic adults: making friends. I personally find it easier to chat to new people online and maybe others feel the same way out there? I could not find any meaningful research on this topic and might be a good one for a future interview. Whether you are pro or anti-VR and the ever-growing online world, I do think that there are some positives.
I would like to thank Murazrai for all his input, the time he took to answer my questions and be involved in this blog, I appreciate it. To all the readers out there I hope you enjoyed the article and if you would like to be interviewed please send me an email.
Benford, P. and Standen, P., 2009. The internet: a comfortable communication medium for people with Asperger syndrome (AS) and high functioning autism (HFA)?. Journal of Assistive Technologies, 3(2), pp.44-53.
Musser, G., 2018. Virtual reality could show others what autism feels like—and lead to potential treatments. [online] Science.org. Available at: <https://www.science.org/content/article/virtual-reality-could-show-others-what-autism-feels-and-lead-potential-treatments> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
Smith, S., 2021. How Virtual Reality is Helping People with Autism. [online] ARVRedtech.com | AR & VR Education Technology. Available at: <https://arvredtech.com/blogs/news/how-virtual-reality-is-helping-people-with-autism-1> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
Hassrick, E., Holmes, L., Sosnowy, C., Walton, J. and Carley, K., 2021. Benefits and Risks: A Systematic Review of Information and Communication Technology Use by Autistic People. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), pp.72-84.