Monday, May 15, 2006

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THE HEART OF TATERU

Tateru_nino

In her life away from the screen, the world of Tateru Nino is absent other people, mostly.  By her estimate, she has all of four "flesh friends" (as she puts it), two of whom she sees only once a year.  This is largely attributable to her Asperger's, a mild autism sometimes known as "geek syndrome", since it disproportionately inflicts people proficient in mathematics, engineering, and high tech.  Symptoms vary, but mainly they involve an inability to connect and emphathize with others on an emotional level.

"I seem to have most of the set," Tateru tells me of hers, "including a broad set of optional symptoms. I emphasize my words a little differently to most people. A bit like the G-Man from Half-Life. I rarely look at people I'm talking to. Ticking clocks and dripping taps drive me batsh*tf**king loco. I have a unique talent for programming because of the way I think about things. I soak up knowledge, but I can't remember if I had breakfast. Most memories before ten years ago are just a grey haze. Nothing there. People are unable to interpret my emotional states accurately, if at all."

All this would probably seem strange to the many Residents who know her, for in-world, she's widely regarded as a warm, matronly Mentor, a uniquely beloved member of the volunteer group who help new users.  Dressed in Victorian gowns of crushed blue velvet, with a wry wit and an arsenal of endearments, she's something of a hip Mary Poppins, gracefully and gently guiding emigres through the complexities of Second Life.  She's so beloved, some Residents built a shrine in her honor; one of them, Mera Pixel, even created a group called Cult of Tateru.  At the moment, it's 77 members strong.

All this for someone who, in real life, is not the greatest of conversationalists.

"The more people talk to me in person, the less they like it," she explains.  "Because I'm usually facing in the opposite direction."

Tateru_cu

All this is actually not so strange to me, for while an entire island in SL exists to teach Asperger's patients real life social skills, it often seems that people with the syndrome flourish in here.  Somehow, with all the normal facial and vocal cues of social interaction supplanted by text chat and broad physical gestures, Residents with Asperger's can sometimes be more empathic and more emotionally engaged, than the average community member.

"People... think differently when they have to serialize their thoughts into text," Tateru speculates. "Maybe they think a little more like me. Certainly all the confusing body-cues and tone-cues don't mean so much here."

Veteran Residents know that longtime SL member Torley Torgeson (now a Linden Lab staffer) also has Asperger's, and like Tateru, is universally loved by the community.

"It seems to be, like Torley, you are able to read text more closely and intuitively than others usually do, since they depend on visual/sound cues normally," I suggest.

"I feel a very strong sense of kinship with Torley," she says. "I feel sometimes like we're standing back to back, looking in different directions across SL. She's the Childe Goddess of chaos, bitten by order. I'm a creature of order, tainted with the blood of chaos. She's watermelons and paradoxes. I'm sheep and zen gardens."

Winged_tateru

Tateru Nino actually began Second Life as a male avatar, but, she says, people couldn't quite accept her in that gender-- something about her manner and language made them think of her as motherly.  Eventually she relented and flipped the sex switch to become Ms. Tateru.  And though she doesn't dress provocatively, she's often harassed and propositioned, she says, even moreso than the avatars who resemble supermodels and club babes.

"Nobody really harasses Ken and Ruth," she says, referring to the default avatars all new users begin with.  "Or the plastic Barbies. Just the folks who stand out and look like real people. You've probably seen it in crowds. A lot of avatars you can hardly tell apart, and a few who just stick out. Maybe we look more....I don't know. Vulnerable. Maybe it's just because we stand out in a crowd. You can be in a public place surrounded by fantastical avatars, people with pink hair and angels with particles shooting out of their asses. But an ordinary face, and a bit of thickness around the middle, and you stick out." 

The way she sees it, from her unique vantage, "Avatars are an extension of that idea. The way we present ourselves subtly affects our persona, just as it does in real life. Only we can change more here. The psyche chooses the presentation, but the presentation feeds back into the psyche."

Tateru_atlas_sheep_sculpture

I ask her if the few people who know her offline would be surprised at how deeply loved by so many she is in here.

"I'm not sure," she answers after awhile.  "I suspect it would cause some surprise or shock... For 20 years I've worked to come to terms with who I am. SL showed me I was not that person. You can consider me to be rather startled."

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference THE HEART OF TATERU:

» The Heart of Tateru from MeraTalk
Or more, perhaps, the mind of Tateru.  Yes, I created the Cult of Tateru, but Im happiest knowing Im a friend of Tateru. ... [Read More]

» Blush from Dwell On It
I'll just be here, hiding under my desk for a while... [Read More]

» The other heart of Tateru from Dwell On It
I'm sitting here, having emerged from the cold darkness; no longer blue. Putting together my thoughts - which are admittedly a little tangled. A little disclosure. Maybe a lot of one. ... [Read More]

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Llauren Mandelbrot

Oops! Above: "Asperger`s", "Asperger`s", "Asbergers", first two being correct. Toodle-oo!

rikomatic

Great interview, Hamlet.

I'd be interested in a similar story on people with physical disabilities using SL as a means of connecting with others. I've seen a couple of avatars in wheelchairs and wondered about this phenomenon.

Gwyneth Llewelyn

How weirdly strange to read this article today. I have talked to Tateru about the very same issue — months after dealing with her on what I could best describe a "professional" environment. "Mother Tateru" was at the time the hub of a rather large group of volunteers who were in desperate need of coordination, help, and mostly, motherly care. This was what Tateru provided, well over several months, and that was the image I had of her in my mind: the mother, the one who cares, the one who is always there, the one where you can bury your head in her lap and cry, and get some comfort — and encourage you to be "out there" in the hard world of volunteering duty the next day, feeling reassured that Tateru would always be there for your needs.

This is a special feeling that isn't nurtured by everybody; this is the kind of feeling you get when you're in front of someone *special*. My mental image of a strong motherly figure, who can be stern when needed, and provide comfort and reassurance whenever requested, was hard to shake, when she told me, quite a long while ago as well, that iRL she was shy, had a difficulty in socialising, and had Asperger's syndrome.

Well, Aspies flourish in SL, and I'm a bit naive when it comes to identifying them; but being shy? Having difficulties in socialising? I couldn't understand that at all. I had the opposite experience. Tateru draws people to her because of the warmth of her heart; she is, in a relationship, the one that *gives* — so hard to find in this egotistic world of Second Life.

Icon Serpentine

Autism these days is considered a spectrum of disorders. It used to refer to a fairly specific developmental disorder -- children who would only repeat an exclusive behaviour mainly.

According to: http://www.kylestreehouse.org/what_is_autism.cfm, the rate of autism is growing rapidly... I'm no expert, but I think it's likely due to the growing spectrum of diagnostic criteria.

To be honest, I was diagnosed in early childhood with autism. I learned to read and write on my own when I was 2, but I was 6 or so before I learned to talk to other people in complete sentences. I would doodle mazes and numbers on everything.

To this day I still sometimes falter and break-down when I get too anxious. I start to stutter and form broken sentences or forget what I was talking about altogether. Even online.

Hearing stories like this is interesting. People who can overcome shortcomings are always inspiring. If she truly is an Aspie, all the best to her.

doug Donovan

i loves me some tateru! :)

Tequila

Autistic and Proud! :D

Gareth Nelson

Please avoid using the term "aspergers patients". A patient is someone who is currently having medical treatment, and this is not true of all aspies.

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