The games appear to have some benefits -- the quality of the kids' facial expressions is improving, Tanaka said -- but the research is still preliminary, and it remains to be seen if it will have an effect on everyday interactions.
Games like these are tested on weekends in a program called Face Camp.
On a recent weekend, they hosted about 20 kids on the autism spectrum at a middle school. Sheppard tried out an idea he had called Emotion Roller Coaster. He invited the kids to board an imaginary roller coaster that zoomed up and down the hallways. At each stop, one of Tanaka's psychology students would prompt them to tell stories related to particular emotions. "The kids were just loving it," Tanaka said.
"He's the visionary of our center, and I just try to make it happen," Tanaka added.
One of Sheppard's big projects is to start a publication consisting entirely of fiction and nonfiction stories about autism by persons with autism. "Autism's Own Journal" is aimed at helping people understand the subjective experience of having autism. It is still in the planning stages, and Sheppard and Takana hope to publish it later this year.
The journal would be the work of a group Sheppard runs called Authors with Autism, where people on the autism spectrum can meet, talk and write together, "to take the power of their own kind of freedom and put down on paper what their needs and desires really are," Sheppard says.
Sheppard developed a format for the group in which each person gets three minutes to share something related to writing or autism. Between sharings, everyone writes whatever they want for five minutes. About eight or nine people are involved; some are students at the University of Victoria. One of them, Philip, has made friends with almost everyone in the group.
"Joseph acts as a facilitator, and he encourages us to be our own leaders, and that gives us a lot of potential for individual expression," said Philip, who asked that his last name be withheld.
At one of the first sessions this winter, during a sharing segment, a friend of one of the participants poked his head in, and the conversation stopped, Sheppard recalls.
"I think there's just this judgment that happens whenever there's a neurotypical in the room," Tanaka explains, using the autism community's term for someone who doesn't have a neurological disability. "Part of the magic that's happening is because neurotypicals are not allowed."
A way of seeing the world
I met Sheppard and Tanaka at the University of Victoria during the week of an international science event in Vancouver in February. I had learned about their work from a contact at the university. Victoria is only accessible by air or water, so I took a sea plane to the quaint island port.
Towering over Tanaka at about 6 feet tall, Sheppard has imposing broad shoulders and large hands, but his demeanor is warm and considerate. His friendly hazel-green eyes don't give away that he's conscientiously trained himself to make eye contact during conversations, or that it still doesn't come naturally.
Sheppard speaks passionately about autism and the need for more support. And in bolstering his arguments, he's exceptionally thorough. For our first conversation, he had prepared a stack of dozens of peer-reviewed articles about autism to back up the facts that he planned to mention, so I wouldn't have to take his word for it.
In March, we corresponded by e-mail, partly for efficiency, and partly because I quickly realized how well Sheppard expresses himself in writing, and that he had a lot to say in response to simple questions. And while a single article could not contain most of his copious reflections that flooded my inbox, he maintained a certain self-consciousness and humor about it. He titled one e-mail thread with the subject, "Could the man with autism I am interviewing be sending yet more long e-mails?"
Sheppard expresses his view of autism through science and science fiction metaphors. He's writing a sci-fi-like book that attempts to articulate what autism feels like. Creating an alternate vision of the world helps Sheppard make sense of everyday relationships that might otherwise confuse him.
"The way I experience the world is so different that I have to learn how other people experience the world and talk in that language," he told me.
To begin with, he views his body as a spaceship. He doesn't fully understand the mechanics of that spaceship, so he reads a lot about science, and studies it, to try to learn more.
And, in his view, each spaceship -- every person -- has a different central computer delivering judgments about the spaceship's mission and what it encounters, much like HAL in"2001: A Space Odyssey."Sometimes, he says, those judgments make other people unkind to those with autism because they seem different.
Judaism also has informed his perception of the world and himself. (He's writing a book called "The Dharma-Torah: Autism Space Flight Manual", and friends call him by his Hebrew name Yossi). Sheppard did not grow up observant, but he has some Jewish heritage, and in the past seven years he has become an active member of the Orthodox Jewish community of Victoria.