The use of virtual worlds to facilitate social interaction of children on the autism spectrum

Wen Wen MU

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Theses


There is a growing consensus among researchers that virtual worlds are promising tool to support the socializing and learning of children with autism spectrum disorder. However, there are still many unanswered questions concerning the education application of virtual worlds. This study contributes to this area of research by exploring how educators can capitalize on a shared interest in virtual worlds to facilitate social interaction for children on the autism spectrum both in the school setting and in the format of small group environment, and by deploying the theory of Affinity Space in a blended environment with human and technology support to guide this learning process.
The virtual world chosen in this study was Minecraft – a popular virtual world game among school-aged children. Two sub-studies were conducted to address the research questions using a pragmatist stance and a mixed research methods approach. Sub-study 1 involved two special schools in Hong Kong using the qualitative inquiry. Observation and interviews were used in this study to understand the education application and impact of Minecraft in the classroom and extra-curricular activities. Sub-study 2 implemented a behavioral intervention program where a group of four children on the autism spectrum were taught specific social interaction skills over five months in a Minecraft interest group. Single-subject-multiple-probe design was used to evaluate the learning effects.
The results of these two sub-studies demonstrated that a virtual world such as Minecraft could be integrated into different learning contexts to provide a friendly and supportive multiuser learning environment for social development of children on the autism spectrum. The outcomes included successful individual behavior changes, a high rate of social engagement, and positive impact on sophisticated social interaction skills. The findings here suggested that during the learning process, guidance from educators is crucial. Moreover, using evidence-based behavioral strategies and a structured group training format can also maximize the socializing outcome.
Researchers and educators should embrace the children’s unique interest in virtual worlds to motivate learning and social interaction. They should be aware of the potential benefits of combining a well-designed virtual world with elaborated learning design. They should also continue to explore the many different ways new technologies can be used to facilitate the social development of children on the autism spectrum. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • The Education University of Hong Kong
  • SIN, Kuen Fung, Kenneth 冼權鋒, Supervisor
  • LO, Sing Kai 盧成皆, Supervisor
  • LI, Ping Ying Eria, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Social interaction
  • Virtual world
  • Minecraft
  • Affinity space
  • Theses and Dissertations
  • Thesis (Ph.D.)--The Education University of Hong Kong, 2019.


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