Billboards, television commercials, radio spots and magazine advertisements have lately been shouting startling autism statistics thanks to the organization Autism Speaks. April is Autism Awareness Month, and Barnes & Noble is spotlighting books on autism in its stores nationwide. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus even got involved in the Autism Speaks’ World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, 2008. There is certainly a marked push for understanding and recognizing the disorder driven by the startlingly high numbers of those affected.
Autism affects every one in 150 people. There are currently 1.5 million Americans affected by autism. The disorder ranges in severity and “impairs a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others. It is also associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines,” states Autism Speaks. As of now, there is no method of prevention, treatment or cure of autism, though early intervention to develop communication skills is helpful.
With autism gaining recognition as a widespread disorder, the virtual world Second Life has a unique PR opportunity, thanks to David Savill, if it chooses to act on it. Second Life is a Web site that allows users to create and customize human figures known as avatars to live in a realistic online world. As of March 2008, the Web site boasted about 13 million accounts. One of these 13 million users is Savill, or Dave Sparrow as his avatar is known in Second Life.
Savill, 22, of England has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic disorder characterized by clumsiness and difficulty in social situations, including trouble recognizing and understanding facial indications, like a smile or frown. In response, Savill has created Naughty Auties, an online area in Second Life designed specifically for those affected by autism, including support for friends and family members.
Naughty Auties is modeled after a relaxing beach scene, a design that in addition to the comfort and privacy of personal computers, hopes to draw autistic users in with enough ease that they feel secure enough to communicate with one another. However, the Second Life area is not touted as a cure for autism, but simply a place for communication, free from face-to-face pressure. Savill has big plans for Naughty Auties’ future including virtual conferences given by psychologists about autism, uniting users simply by accessing Second Life, without the need of long-distance travel.
With the high numbers of those affected by autism, not only those with the disorder, but friends and family, Second Life can help this growing group as well as its own PR. Savill has written to Second Life and circulated a petition in hopes of any kind of donation to help Naughty Auties as well as publicity on the main Web site for Second Life. But it has thus far done no good. Savill’s first letter was answered two weeks later with a generic reply letter. His response to the generic letter wasn’t even answered.
Second Life is allowing an innovative PR chance pass it by, especially after negative publicity from child pornography scandals and virtual land lawsuits on its Web site. Second Life also needs to act fast before one of its virtual competitors, like Active World or There, seizes the opportunity. This situation can leave the Web site looking either callous and apathetic or innovative and accommodating, a decision so seemingly simple that an avatar could make it.
Mary Elizabeth Roberson and Caitlin Graham