Eiko Ikegami Researches Autistic Communities in the Virtual World

This piece originally appeared at The New School News and is reprinted here with permission.

In their study of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers have devoted most of their attention to the diagnosis and treatment of children.

As a result, says Eiko Ikegami, Walter A. Eberstadt Professor and professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research, researchers know very little about the lives of adults with autism — and even less about the way they interact with one another.

Ikegami wanted to flip the script on ASD research and zero in on adults living with the condition. To that end, she went to a place that happens to be a decade-long focus of her ethnographic research: the online virtual world of Second Life. It’s there that adults on the autism spectrum gather to hang out — and be themselves.

As Ikegami discovered, Second Life is ideally suited to people with autism, as it allows users to come and go as they please — a means of avoiding the real-world threat of sensory overload, a common affliction for people with the disorder. Assuming the form of Kiremimi Tigerpaw, her Second Life avatar, Ikegami interacted with adult autistic people in virtual environments.

Of all the discoveries she made about these individuals, Ikegami was most intrigued by the “incredible richness of their mental life.”

“Although I entered with the expectation of studying people with a disorder, I acquired a heightened appreciation of the neurodiversity among human beings,” Ikegami says. “While people with autism have difficulty with some things that are easy for us neurotypicals, as they call us, they excel in other things to which we are insensitive.”

Ikegami has channeled her research and findings into her innovative new Japanese-language book, Hyper-World: Autistic Avatars in Virtual World (an expanded English version of the book is forthcoming). It is supplemented by a blog, published on her website, that details her interactions with autistic people on Second Life and in face-to-face meetings with them across the United States. Her trip was documented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, for a two-part documentary, The World of Autistic Avatars.

During her two-week trip, Ikegami scheduled hours of face time with her autistic friends from Tennessee to Wyoming to California. But they had their most productive conversations on the Internet. As Ikegami notes, because of their “different mental functioning, many autistic people see, hear, touch, or smell the world in ways that differ from those of neurotypicals.” Most crucially, the majority of people on the autism spectrum are unusually sensitive to sensory information. Unlike the real world, Second Life allows its inhabitants to control sensory input and to freely express themselves through the creative use of avatars (furthermore, no one is required to read subtle “social cues”). If an autistic Second Life user becomes overwhelmed, he or she can simply turn off his or her computer.

“Being able to turn down the sound, prevent people coming up to me; not having the movement of air or smells, pollen, insect sounds, intensity of light; being able to be supported in a chair — not falling almost all the time and having to brace myself against objects or be horizontal — yet still being able to move in a space and explore is hugely beneficial,” one user told Ikegami. “This is coupled with the fact that I seem to communicate far more fluently via text than I can by speech.”

The rules of communication in the real world have been made to accommodate the preferences of neurotypical people, Ikegami explains. In virtual worlds, however, “there are technologically defined spaces that democratize the rules of communication and allow autistic and neurotypical people to socialize as equals,” she says.

Given the opportunity, autistic adults have a lot to say. During her trip, Ikegami met Malachi and his friend Jenny, who discussed their lives as members of both the LGBTQ and autistic communities in El Centro, California;  Cora of Little Rock, Arkansas, who shared her “activist outlook” on autism and her experiences of sensory and emotional “melt-down”; and Larre of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who talked about his life as a musician and trance music DJ (in Second Life) and a merchandise clerk at a local supermarket (in real life). Each person conveyed his or her appreciation for the freedom of expression allowed in virtual worlds.

The experience of autistic individuals on Second Life resonated with Ikegami. Upon moving from Japan to the United States to study sociology at Harvard, her ability to speak or understand English was limited, leaving her with the feeling of being “a self-confined autistic child.”

“Many autistic children have in fact rich mental worlds, even when they cannot express themselves well; When I moved to the United States, I also had a lot to say, but I could not express myself effectively in a new environment,” she says.

Expressing herself not only meant learning a new language, but also breaking with cognitive assumptions rooted in “the culturally defined ways of feeling, sensing, and viewing” with which she grew up.

“It was quite a frustrating experience,” she adds, “but it was curiously enriching.”

She felt a similar sense of exhilaration conducting ethnographic research with autistic people. Just as immersing herself in a new culture led her to “break the boundaries of my cognitive framework,” so too did “interacting with neurologically different people.”

Ikegami hopes that through her research, others will come to the same realization — and, in turn, “come to a new level of reflection regarding the depths of our cognitive experience, and appreciating diversity in human intelligences.”

“Knowing oneself is a counsel of various philosophies and religions around the world,” she says. “Paradoxically, however, we often come to know ourselves better only when we interact with and try to know ‘others’; we are able to touch the unseen parts of ourselves only when others hold up a mirror to us.”

Alice Crary On Her Newest Book, Inside Ethics

Marianne LeNabat sat down earlier this year with Alice Crary, Chair of Philosophy and Founding Co-director of the Graduate Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies, to talk about her most recent book, Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought, the role of ethics in philosophy, and what philosophy is for. 

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Marianne LeNabat: What is the focus of your work?  What kinds of topics do you address?

Alice Crary: The straightforward answer is that I work in ethics.

Ethics as I understand it isn’t a specialized sub-discipline within philosophy, but emerges out of an engagement with many areas. Sometimes philosophers itemize sub-disciplines in philosophy: ethics as opposed to philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, etc. I don’t find it useful to compartmentalize my work like that.  I approach issues in ethics by working in those areas and others as well, including social and political philosophy.

ML: Are there ethical issues in particular that you work on?

AC:In my most recent book, Inside Ethics, I focus on the value of humanity, and the value of being an animal, taking up issues in animal studies and disability studies.  The treatment of animals is one particular concern, and cognitive disability is another. I wanted to combat ways of doing moral philosophy that neglected those cases in ways that seemed just seemed awful.

ML: What is distinctive about the ways that you approach these issues?

AC: Throughout my writings, I argue that the world that concerns us in ethics is brought into focus by moral thought and activity. My idea is that any adequate sketch of the sphere of moral thought needs to include, in addition to specifically moral concepts, efforts to illuminate the features of the world to which these concepts are responsible.

This account of moral thought may seem farfetched, quite untenable really. It’s an account that takes it for granted that we need moral capacities like moral imagination to adequately capture features of the world that moral concepts pick out and that, at the same time, presupposes that the real world is morally non-neutral. A presupposition on these lines is alien to most work in contemporary moral philosophy. It’s at least a tacit premise of most ethical research that reality is as such morally neutral. So, to make a plausible case for my preferred account of moral thought, I have to do significant work to defend this conception of reality. This is one of the projects that leads me to grapple with topics in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and other areas.

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Jay Bernstein, on Torture and Philosophy

Jay Bernstein is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. His latest book is Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Bernstein, who received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1975, has been at the NSSR since 2001, where he teaches courses on Kant and Hegel, and on topics in ethics and aesthetics. His enormously popular lectures have been collected by his students and published online at The Bernstein Tapes.

He recently discussed his latest book, as well his approach to philosophy more generally, and how he feels about being a part of the faculty here, with Marianne LeNabat, a doctoral student in philosophy.


Marianne LeNabat: First, can you tell us what you work on generally? What sorts of philosophical problems interest you?

Jay Bernstein: Can I give two answers to this question?

Here is the first one: During my job interview at the New School for Social Research, when asked by graduate students what I understood the true purpose of philosophy to be, my mind immediately flew to the panoply of traditional answers to this question: philosophy is the installation of reason as the mechanism for distinguishing appearance from reality; philosophy is an underlaborer to the advanced sciences of its age; philosophy should address Kant’s four fundamental questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? What is man?; philosophy’s task is the comprehension of its own time in thought; philosophy must address the meaning of being.

These are all meaningful answers to the question. But what pressed itself into words at that moment was something more provincial: No academic discipline, no area of the humanities or the social sciences has, as its central task, the recognition, remembering, and addressing of the breadth of human suffering. While making occasional appearances here and there, suffering itself, its character, extent, and reasons, is virtually absent from university studies and research. Philosophy, if it is not to become irrelevant or complicit in what is worst, should become a repository of thought about human suffering. That is a good deal of what I have learned from reading Theodor Adorno for forty years.

The second answer is narrower. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit blew me away when I first read it. It still does. It has two thoughts that have been decisive for my philosophical work: First, in the famous dialectic of master and slave there is the argument that in order to simply to be a person one must be recognized by another person. From this comes the unwelcome thought that we are radically dependent beings, that we owe our being persons at all, as well as whatever independence or freedom we might have, to the persons and institutions that surround us. Thinking about the depth of human dependence has been part of everything I have worked on and thought about. Second, it turns out that the dependence on others entails that we are historical beings through and through.

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