Like many computer wizards, Quan Chen (pictured)loves anarchy. At 10, he hacked into his school's website, but since learning that hackers can go to jail, he has tried to limit himself to admiring the online ''invasions'' of others.
''Look - it's a horribly altered SpongeBob SquarePants!'' he says excitedly, showing us on his laptop how spammers have infiltrated the virtual Second Life world with endless, evil versions of the cartoon character.
Quan, 12, barely stops for breath when talking about computing, but two years ago he spoke to no one except his mother. He has autism, as well as a very high IQ, and was so miserable at his former primary school he became suicidal. Mother Joy Ding credits technology experts at Victoria University, together with his new school, for helping to uncover a ''brand-new Quan''.
''Before, he was severely anxious and said he wanted [to] die,'' Ms Ding said. ''He never talked to anyone. He would run into the middle of the road … Now, with [the] computer, he … [is] happy: Open his mind; open his mouth; open his heart.''
Quan was part of a project aimed at encouraging children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including those with Asperger's syndrome, to play online games.
Project organisers Dale Linegar and Stefan Schutt said the theory was that children with ASD, who struggle socially, would interact behind the safety of an avatar in a child-friendly version of Second Life.
But the children were more interested in controlling the Second Life world, rather than acting out social encounters.
''It was the fact you have total control,'' said Mr Schutt. ''Unlike in the real world, which can be quite daunting for these kids, in Second Life they understand their environment. You know what the rules are, you can make things, all without having to refer to other people.''
But the discovery of shared passions prompted children who rarely talked to socialise in the real world.
''They related to each other through a common interest - looking at another kid's screen and saying, 'You're into Pokemon? Me too','' said Mr Schutt.
Next month, the pair will open a high-tech drop-in centre in Footscray, initially at their own expense, until funding can be found. Children with ASD will be able to pursue technological passions while interacting with others, online and offline. Mr Linegar expects some disability groups will be critical of the centre, to be known as The Lab. ''People have told us we'd be better integrating these young people into society rather than having their own special club,'' he said.
''But these kids, especially when they get to high school, they're so isolated … There's so much pressure to fit the mould. Why can't they be different and have friends online?''
Nathan, 16, said the project had helped him make friends with like-minded children ''who have the same trouble interacting and the same interests''.
''Without [computing] I wouldn't be very happy as it would close … my connection to the people who are non-judgmental that I can interact with via the Internet,'' he said.
Meanwhile, Quan has borrowed a laptop from Mr Linegar to take home. To his peers, he is a god of programming, not a 12-year-old boy with autism. ''He chats online, he [is] so happy,'' said Ms Ding. ''But now he also talks to his teachers, his therapists. I can't believe it, he can get a job … He'll be OK.''
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Sydney Morning Herald in Australia:
Posted by BA Haller at 12:03 AM