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Gaming and autism: how kids are finding a safe space online to unleash their creativity

Dad and son on couch playing computer games with remote controllers having fun at home

For any parent, finding the right balance between the constant lure of technology and appropriate screen time can be a battle. For parents of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder, this battle can be trickier to navigate, with many in the community regarding gaming as a useful tool to help autistic kids learn valuable social skills.

As reported in the ABC, Dr Kathryn Ringland, autism expert and author of several studies in the field, believes that video games provide a protected space for kids to learn important social skills.

“They don’t have to worry about things that might be challenging in the physical world such as body language, facial expressions and eye contact,” she said.

Dr Ringland is not the only expert who champions the efficacy of gaming for kids with autism. Dr Deb Keen from Griffith University’s Autism Centre of Excellence also believes that video games provide a ‘bridge’ that allow kids with autism to connect with their peers at school.

Of course, it’s a polarizing topic, and opposing camps remain at odds on the issue. Amaze touch on the opposing views about gaming, including the fact that there is little research specifically into video games and autism – and referencing a 2013 study that suggests a link between problematic game use and behaviour problems in boys. Then there is the fear of addiction, a fear that’s so real that the World Health Organisation lists it as a disorder. Despite this, gaming is hugely popular in the community and more than double (41.4%) of autistic adolescents and children spend free time playing video games as compared to their neurotypical peers

Parents build safe online space for autistic gamers

For parents, the question of which video games are appropriate still remains. One of the most popular games is Minecraft; a ‘sandbox’ game which (according to Techopedia) allows players to roam inside a virtual world which they can change and build on. Minecraft has been likened to a playground where kids can use their imaginations to build environments within a randomly generated world. 

As reported in New Scientist, in 2013, Canadian web developer who himself has autism and is also the father of an autistic child, set up a server to run a customised version of Minecraft exclusively for children with autism and their families. His idea was sparked when he discovered that although his son loved the world of Minecraft, he was still at risk of online bullying. And so, Autcraft was born – a version of the popular game that is itself governed by rules and social norms related to friendliness and helpfulness. This is built within the game itself, and is also moderated and enforced by an application process for those that want to play. Harassment of players or destruction of their property is banned. There are also physical adaptations applied, and players can block out zones for only themselves and their friends to play in. There’s even the addition of sensory rooms within the game that offer a variety of sensory inputs and moods. Players can move to rooms where the door closes to allow for darkness, spend time in a cozy library or serene garden.

It has become so popular, it attracted the attention of Dr Ringland who now works with the developers. This article from The Conversation is an excerpt from Dr Ringland, speaking at the 2019 Education in Games Summit: “Autcraft uses Minecraft to do four key things for autistic children: it gives them structure, creates a safe social space, lets them filter their experience in various ways, and helps them unleash their imaginations.” 

Mable intern Jess echoes this sentiment, saying that the game provides kids with “a way to be in control of the environment in a world where they often feel a loss of control. They now can create a real world of whatever they want, and with a space where they can be their true selves with zero judgement.”

Find a real-life gaming buddy

For many parents of kids with ASD, finding the right support for their kids is about enabling social interactions and allowing the family a little respite. In this context, the right support worker is often not the one with the most experience, or the one with the most degrees. It’s the one they can relate to and have fun with. For a ten year old boy, that’s not likely to be someone who reminds them of their mum. 

Mable is an online platform where you can use your NDIS funding to find and directly engage support workers from within your local area. They can be neighbours, family friends or the uni student from up the street who wants to provide social support to someone on their community. Students like Daniel – who studies Marketing in Sydney but mentored young boys with autism in his native Norway.

If you’d like to see who’s available to offer support in your local area, search the profiles of independent support workers today.

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