Onscreen, Michael Mendoza’s digital avatar stands before a wonderland of cakes and sweets, but his message is all business: “I. Get. Frustrated when people push me and call me — and call me — a teacher’s pet!”
In another classroom at Steuart W. Weller Elementary School, nearly an hour’s drive west of Washington, D.C., two students stand side-by-side, eyes riveted on a big-screen TV. They jump, duck and swing their arms in unison, working together as they help their digital doppelgangers raft downriver.
In real life, 9-year-old Michael has autism, as do his two classmates. All three have long struggled with the mental, physical and social rigors of school. All three now get help most days from video-game avatars — simplified digital versions of themselves doing things most autistic children don’t generally do. In Michael’s case, he’s recording “social stories” videos that remind him how to act. In his classmates’ cases — their parents asked that they not be identified — they’re playing games that help with coordination, body awareness and cooperation, all challenges for kids on the spectrum.