Main video header credit: Mathieu Roth
I am what you would call, a neurotypical person. Walking down a bustling high street or grabbing a drink with friends are activities that blend into my day without a second thought. But for someone with autism, the world can be a scary place, and the things I take for granted can make or break someone else’s world.
Prior to writing this article, I watched a number of videos designed to give neurotypical people – namely, those not affected with a developmental disorder like autism – a sense of what it’s like to be on the autism spectrum.
Overly bright lights, sudden, loud disorientating noises, distractions, anxiety from straying away from an established routine and more, are just some of the ways that people with autism experience the world.
While watching videos and reading articles have helped me learn more about autism, its nature as a spectrum disorder means that its manifestations, symptoms and traits vary massively from individual to individual. In the words of Dr. Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
Keith Stuart, games editor at the Guardian, is familiar with the challenges of having a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). His son, Zac, was diagnosed at the age of six, and the years before and after the diagnosis have provided both Keith and his wife with numerous challenges – challenges which affect millions of families across the world on a daily basis.
For people like myself who don’t have to deal with these challenges, these struggles can be hard to understand – and that’s where Keith’s book comes in.
A Boy Made of Blocks
Based on Keith’s own experiences and learnings, a Boy Made of Blocks is a fictional novel which beautifully portrays the struggle of a father to break through the barriers and strains that his son Sam’s autism has created in his family’s life.
The heart-warming tale of Alex as he struggles to bond with his eight-year-old son while juggling a strained marriage really helps to pull back the veil on the struggles that autism can manifest.
In the book, Alex finds it difficult to understand Sam, and his rampant discomfort for any change in routine, no matter how small. Communication is also a big issue – Sam struggles to express himself or discuss his day or interests, leading to frustration on both sides, before a glimmer of hope appears in a rather unexpected place – a video game called Minecraft.
When Sam discovers Minecraft, his enthusiasm and passion shine through, and he becomes more talkative, eager to show his dad the things he’s created in his safe, ordered world.
This story rings true of Keith’s own experience with the game. Having first played the Xbox version of Minecraft at the Microsoft Spring showcase in 2012, Keith though it would be a good fit for Zac, who had already shown interest in creation-centric games.
“I just thought Minecraft would be really good for him. There’s lots of little touches to it, like the fact that it looks quite blocky and toy-like so the world is very unintimidating, and the music is really calm and relaxing and creates quite a sedate environment – all of these things, I thought, would work quite well for someone on the autism spectrum. So as soon as the game was out, I sat down with Zac and introduced it to him with his brother Albi, and they almost immediately just really loved it.”
A safe space
Since Keith has been writing about his experiences in his features at The Guardian, he has been contacted by hundreds of game developers and parents about their own experiences.
There are now multiple autism-friendly Minecraft servers such as AutCraft and SafeCraft, where people with ASD can play with each other in a safe and familiar environment without fear of being bullied, picked on or insulted.
The world of Minecraft – from its cartoonish, simple, blocky appearance, to it soothing music and ability to give complete control to players appears to chime with people on the autism spectrum, who can find it harder to play and integrate with ‘real life’ games.
“I started playing Minecraft with Zac when he was about seven or eight – just as he was diagnosed – and it was very clear right from the beginning that it was a really positive thing for him”, Keith says.
“He was really interested in it and he really understood it. He finds it really difficult to play real life games and he finds it very difficult to express himself creatively. He’s not very good at drawing or painting or anything like that – he just doesn’t have the patience. There’s just something about Minecraft that allowed him to start building things almost straight away, and he really understood all the systems in the game.”
“It was really positive for him and it really made a difference to our lives, because he started talking a lot more and joined in conversations more – because I think the game gave him a lot of confidence to talk and to convey his ideas.”
Minecraft in education
Minecraft has also traversed the traditional boundaries of video games by firmly establishing itself as an innovative tool in education and learning.
Minecraft: Education Edition promotes communication, teamwork, and provides a limitless canvas for teachers to create exercises and challenges that are not only fun, but stimulate young minds while teaching them in the process.
From learning about architecture and history, to sustainable development, living on Mars and so much more, the possibilities are endless.
Microsoft also announced a new Minecraft: Education Edition feature. Code Builder, will teach children the fundamentals of coding in the world of Minecraft, allowing them to build on this knowledge and ultimately leave learn the skills to embark on a computer higher level science journey.
“It’s one of the first games that has aligned the educational element with actual enjoyment. For many years educational software was rubbish and children were maybe interested for a few minutes because it was happening on the screen, but were put off by the fact that the games weren’t very good.”
“I think Minecraft is the first mass consumer game which has really caught the imagination of children and is also really viable and useful in a classroom environment.”
Our understanding of autism as a society has come a long way over the past few decades, but challenges and difficulties remain. Parents coming to terms with what ASD entails can find it very difficult to understand and adjust – as mirrored in Keith’s reflections on writing his novel:
“It was quite cathartic in places. It really made me think about the things that I’d done and the way that I coped, and that we coped as a family with autism. It made me question some things – like very early on in the book, Alex isn’t very good with dealing with autism at all, and his mistakes made me think about some of the things we’d done and maybe we’d got wrong, where we weren’t patient enough with Zac and we didn’t really understand, really before he was diagnosed, a huge amount about autism.”
“Once I’d written all those little things that we started getting right, it really made me think about what a process it was. I was really hopeful that there was a chance that people who had autistic children would read the book and that it would provide them with help or advice.”
It is apparent, having talked with Keith, that one of the most important things for parents of children who have autism to be aware of and understand, is that they are not alone. Knowing that there are other people out there who can understand what you’re going through can be a huge help.
Flicking through his book’s reviews on Amazon, there are many comments from parents who have gone through similar experiences, who found the book’s relatability to help them with their own process.
Confusion and questions aren’t always solely on the parents of children with autism, however. A lack of education and understanding can often lead to confusion and hostility from those outside of a family coping with autism.
“A lot of parents are super overprotective and are very quick to move their child out of the social circle or the area that your child is in – whether that’s in the playground or the classroom, and so not only are you isolated, but your child can be isolated as well.”
“I wanted to write a book for parents who have been in that situation but also for parents with neurotypical children to understand how heartbreaking that is to see – it’s the hardest thing I think – the hardest thing about having an autistic child in some ways is the way that other people deal with them, so I brought a lot of that into the book I think.”
The National Autistic Society is a useful resource for providing support and information for parents of children on the autism spectrum, as well as for parents who believe their child may be on the spectrum. But while awareness is improving, there is still more that society can do.
Keith tells me that currently, we are in a situation where only 16% of adults with autism are in full-time employment – which is remarkably low, given that there we would expect far more to be employed on a full-time basis.
With one percent of the world’s population on the autism spectrum, and with one in 100 people in the UK alone with ASD, the education and awareness must continue to help improve things further.
“These are people that have lots of value to society with lots to offer, so I think there’s so much more to be done, but we’ve definitely come a long way since the 1980s where everyone thought that autism was just basically Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.”