In recognition of April as the National Autism Awareness Month in the US and of April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day, we wanted to take a moment to talk about autism and gaming. For this, we reached out to our friends at Game to Grow, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the use of games for therapeutic, educational, and community growth. Game to Grow’s weekly therapeutic social skills groups help approximately 150 participants each week around the world become more confident, creative, and socially capable using games of all kinds. Participants are frequently working on social challenges associated with autism, ADHD, social anxiety, or depression. Playing games in a safe, supportive, and fun environment helps them build meaningful, supportive friendships while developing valuable skills to flourish socially on their own terms. In addition to group services, Game to Grow's comprehensive training program empowers mental health professionals, educators, and community advocates around the world to use innovative game-based strategies to enrich their own communities.
There are many different intersections between autism and gaming. In this blog, we’re highlighting the personal experience of three individuals associated with Game to Grow: a client who uses the program, the volunteer coordinator of Game to Grow, and one of their trainees. We thank each of them for sharing their stories with our gaming community. Game to Grow founder and Executive Director Adam Davis and his staff have created supporting and nurturing environments for all players, as well as developing training for Game Masters and industry professionals to support individuals with autism. For more information on Game to Grow and how you can get involved, visit www.gametogrow.org.
For this occasion, I’d love to talk about autistic representation in games or the benefits of role-playing games to neurodiverse people—but, being autistic with a penchant for deep dives into subjects of interest, there is no way I can satisfactorily cover that in the 500 odd words available. Instead, I’m going to share a simple but effective intervention that can be used at any table, and which can have a big positive impact for all players, with some unique advantages for autistic ones. Full credit to the wonderful folks over at Game to Grow, who taught most of my group this technique when we were attending a therapeutic GM training
In my wonderful roleplaying group, we start each session with a check-in question asked by the GM. This can be literally almost anything—last time we played it was what is your favorite bird? But it could just as well have been what’s a childhood memory you would like to change? Or if you could have a conversation with anyone at all, who would you choose?
We, the players, answer for ourselves, and—when applicable—also for our characters. Depending on the question, the insights here can be profound, intriguing, or hilarious. Our dwarf barbarian’s favorite bird is a sparrow because they’re small, a bit grungy, and always willing to take on something bigger than themselves, much like him.
When we have put down the dice for the evening, everyone answers two more questions, and these are the same every session. First, everyone gives a highlight to another player for making their session awesome, and second—this one is the kicker—everyone shares something that was challenging about the session, or something they’ve learned.
So why is this a good thing for me as an autistic gamer?
Firstly, this ritual creates a social space where it is not only allowed but encouraged for every player to share their unique perspective on the game, and to express when something has been difficult. For me as an autistic who sometimes needs to ask for support or accommodation, this helps level the playing field, so to speak, and creates a structured way for me to express things that are challenging when they happen. The repetitive nature and timing of the questions also help me feel less anxious about speaking up in a social context. Finally, asking and answering these questions facilitates honest, authentic communication, which is not only great for me as an autistic who struggles with small talk and polite pretense, but in a very real way brings the whole group closer together. Some of the best times we’ve had as a group have been the hour-long conversations after the sessions, which grow organically out of the tone and intention set by the check-in and -out questions.
All told, it’s an exercise in connection and trust which helps me as an autistic bridge the gap that can sometimes be present between myself and neurotypical fellow players and feel like an equal and valued member of the group. For me, that’s the best part.
Game to Grow trainee
Saroc the Bard is an excellent negotiator. I, on the other hand, am not. Saroc the Bard is an amazing wordsmith. I continually struggle to find the right expressions. Playing RPGs has helped me understand Autism and myself by teaching me better conversation skills, self-advocacy, and learning social cues. For my entire life, it has been difficult for me to have a decent conversation with people as I have a tendency to ramble. Playing RPGs has helped me get better at the balance of back and forth talking that good conversations require and neurotypical people take for granted. Various RPGs have also taught me how important and easy it is to stand up for myself. By practicing in the controlled environment of an RPG, I have learned to have the confidence to tell someone how I am truly feeling or to stop them when they’ve interrupted me. I have also learned how to identify certain social cues, like when someone wants to talk, or is feeling uncomfortable.
Living with Autism has given me a unique ability to do some things that other people find difficult, like finding solutions from multiple angles. Having these abilities has come at a social and emotional cost. Though it is easy for me to make friends, it’s often difficult for me to be aware of how my behavior affects them. I have often felt alone, even when I’m with my friends. But playing RPGs has helped me find people like me; I don’t have to deal with Autism by myself. I have been able to see the positives in what I am capable of doing, instead of focusing on the negatives of what I’m incapable of doing. Playing RPGs has made coping with the chaos of the world much easier by giving me problems I am easily able to solve. Because of this, I am able to find solutions to my real-world problems.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, and even two people with the same diagnosis, like Asperger’s, process the world very differently. RPGs allow for a wide variety of characters; thus, anyone can find a character that fits them. Something that is amazing about RPGs is that people can write the backstories for their characters. Being able to include skills my character has that I’ve wanted has made learning those skills easier, like communicating, negotiating, and self-respect. Learning these skills in a group that won’t judge me for making mistakes has made playing more fun and enjoyable. Since I started playing Saroc 4 years ago, I have learned, quite honestly, to love myself.
Game to Grow client
My name is Shawna Spain, but my online handle is likesevenspoon. I was diagnosed as Autistic in my mid-twenties, and my reactions were a mix of relief that I knew what was wrong with me, finally, and a kind of anger that my brain was so different that I couldn't be "normal." It's been about a decade, and I finally don't feel a desire to be normal—I am happy being me. I am pretty awesome.
When I was first diagnosed, my doctor encouraged me to engage in structured social activities and when I was like, how even do you do that, he suggested I invite people over for board games. So, I joined a TTRPG game, and played board games with people and felt a comfort in those interactions because there are RULES. And everyone just agrees to follow them. Which is like real life, except unlike real life, the rules for these games are written down. Which is awesome. I finally found a world where my brain was less of a hindrance and more of a great thing.
I am a great storyteller, and the framework of the game gives me a place to relax and have energy to tell those stories. That means a lot to me. I can exist in a space for all humans and have fun and meaningful relationships. I can be successful at things, learn things, and play. For someone who grew up branded a weirdo, made fun of for the way I talked, got into fights when someone called me stupid, this is a whole new world. I belong alongside all of these other humans who want to play a game and participate in the collaborative telling of a story. I can practice skill sets that I can use in other parts of my life. After all, being the GM of a game is often using skills that a manager would need in their real-life job. Think about it. There are objectives, and you need to get a group of people to complete them. You need to make it engaging and fun and set everyone up to be a success. Same skill set.
I want more people to play TTRPGs. I want them to be safe spaces for the Neurodivergent community. I want more Autistics to be able to learn the same things I have, and feel the same confidence, and find friends and joy.
Game to Grow volunteer coordinator
We'd like to thank the contributors in this blog for sharing their stories with our community and giving us an insight into the role that TTRPGs play in their lives.
Community Blog: Autism Awareness
Thursday, April 29, 2021