World Autism Awareness Week: The aspirations of avatars

By Merlyn Taylor

As a part of World Autism Awareness Week, we want to highlight some of the challenges faced by the 700,000 British citizens on the autistic spectrum.

So what is Autism? The World Health Organisation defines Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as ‘a range of conditions characterised by some degree of impaired social behaviour, communication and language, and a narrow range of interests and activities that are both unique to the individual and carried out repetitively’. In short, this means people on the autistic spectrum will share similar challenges, but the way autism affects their day to day life is very different. In some individuals it may not be noticeable, whereas others require full time specialist support.

While it’s estimated that autism in some form affects 1 in every 100 individuals in the UK, only 32 percent are in paid employment (16% full time), against 46.3 percent of those registered as disabled. While ASD individuals can struggle socially, they often have keen attention to detail and are passionate about subjects that interest them. This can make them a valuable member of a team, but without adequate support they often feel unable to cope outside of their homes. Many rely on the virtual worlds of social media and computer gaming to pass time. These platforms give people who are on the autistic spectrum the ability to engage in activities with few unexpected challenges and in situations that they can easily escape. In recent years, there has been a move to create virtual platforms where people on the autistic spectrum can learn and practice real world scenarios to reduce uncertainties and help them engage with society and gain greater independence. As a part of our interest in supporting the autistic community, we’ve seen some exciting innovation in this area within London.

AUTUS is an award-winning organisation that has been developing a cutting-edge model for autistic individuals in the south London. Set up in 2013, AUTUS help young subjects raise their aspirations and harness their skills and interests through training and support that users can access from their homes. Each user develops a character, or avatar, that exists in a virtual world where there are lecture theatres, seminar rooms and libraries for them to explore, just as they would if they went to a regular college. These facilities are designed and developed by the staff and the students.

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Virtual art gallery exhibition in production

With the ability to fly and teleport between classes, the course mimics computer gaming, a world in which many feel comfortable. The beneficiaries are also given the option to either speak into a microphone or type responses, to give them greater control of the situation and reduce anxiety. After students become accustomed to the virtual world, the individuals are put on accredited training courses, enabling them to develop key skills, such as team work and communication skills. These training courses can be built into an explorative adventure on an island, where obstacles and challenges require the group of beneficiaries, as a team, to complete set tasks to advance to the next stage.

Autus Blog
Learners setting up camp

Students can use the virtual world to explore their interests. For instance, one student with an interest in mechanics built a 3D model car engine crafting each part separately using his knowledge coupled with the training provided by staff.

Most students are keen to get into paid employment, to give themselves greater autonomy and independence. As a part of the training programmes, staff help individuals identify, and feel confident about their skills and look for potential roles that capitalise on their interests. The team can then run mock interviews on the system to practice, followed by face-to-face with a member of the AUTUS support team.  The transition from the virtual world to the real world takes time but, with the right support, has proven to work, not least because of the confidence built up as learners and participants in the virtual world.

AUTUS also advocates on behalf of clients to potential employers.  Any worries are discussed and the team will give guidance on how to word questions to get the best response. If the interview is successful, the employment engagement manager will work with the organisation to make the environment ASD friendly and support the individual while they adjust to the new routine.

Unfortunately, even with all this support, many potential employers reject ASD applicants because of their communication issues.

Employers see the word 'Autism', and not the person behind that, which is a shame because they have so very much to offer.
Jo Ivers, Employer Engagement Manager, AUTUS

ASD employees often prove to be extremely focused, passionate and unfaltering in their work, and while some small adjustments may be needed, they can ultimately prove to be invaluable members of any team. 

Some of AUTUS “graduates” also become employees of the charity, developing and maintaining the virtual platform and becoming the virtual trainers and course leaders.  ASD learners are often best-placed to help one another. 

A brilliant project with which LCF is delighted to be associated!