A few months ago, one my youngest son’s therapists and I were discussing the pre-planning I had done for his NDIS funding. As some of you will know, the NDIS requires you to recount, in detail, the rhythm and flow of your child’s daily life and activities. My little guy is happiest just being in the safe, predictable environment of home, where I home-school him and his two older autistic brothers, and he prefers playing with children much older than his age-peers. Our family narrative reflects this reality.
As the therapist glanced through my day-to-day recount she looked at me and asked, gently but with clear censure, ‘so just how much screen does he have each day?’. Argh. I cringed internally with guilt and shame, but squared my shoulders to justify his iPad usage… only to shy away from that confrontation to reply vaguely, ‘um, not that much’. She gave me that look – you know the one that’s part doubtful, part disapproving judgement, part reminder that your failures are seen and noted – and dropped the matter. But even months later, it’s still bothering me: the question itself, and my own lacklustre, totally inadequate, evasive response.
We all know what the question behind her question was. Or, more properly, what the intent behind the question was. It was a reprimand, a reminder, that by allowing my son so much iPad I was somehow damaging him, enabling his social isolation, coddling him, exacerbating his autism. I’ve heard it all before, and it’s rhetoric to which we’re exposed often as parents: technology is damaging, it’s isolating, it’s anti-social. And when it comes to technology, I spend my life consumed by paroxysms of guilt: if I take my sons’ iPads (or other miscellaneous gaming devices) away, I know I do my children a disservice; if I give it to them, society shames for me it and my already shaky feelings of self-efficacy as a mother waver even further.
And there’s the rub. I know that I know my children and their needs best. But I can’t help being bullied by external expectations, and social pressures. So, I’ve decided it’s time to rectify that wrong. Now, months later, I’ve finally formulated the answer I wish I’d have delivered to my son’s therapist when the issue arose.
In order to understand the importance technology – specifically Minecraft – has in our house, you need to know more about my youngest boy, Mr Z. Mr Z undermines most assumptions people have about autistic kids, not least because he has the most amazing, complex and vivid imagination. This is a little boy whose internal world is vast and deep and profound.
Mr Z has certain ways of experiencing his imagination which are both visceral and uplifting for him, but he has neither the expressive language nor the fine motor to share his imaginative visions with us, his family. Mr Z is verbal, and generally he has a precocious vocabulary, but the complexity of his internal imagination is so great that he can’t always access the right words to describe what’s inside his head. As he begins to learn that we aren’t inside his head with him, that we can’t automatically see what he sees, he desperately wants to share his internal world with us; he wants to make the internal, external.
But when a child’s words simply don’t suffice, and when they struggle to draw, and they’re too young to type or write (even if they could access the right words), how can that child share – communicate – what they so deeply desire to share? How can they give their family a way of seeing what they see, in their special, awesome, intensely detailed way?
Well, for us, and for Mr Z, the answer is Minecraft: Mr Z recreates his internal worlds in the Minecraft universe so that we can see, we can experience, what he does. Minecraft is Mr Z’s AAC if you like. For most people, Minecraft is a highly motivating ‘sandbox game’, an open-ended virtual world, which encourages building and creation with few game-directed goals and requirements. For Mr Z, it’s a way to augment and complement his current verbal capacity when that capacity isn’t sufficient for him to communicate what he wants to communicate. It alleviates communication frustrations and gives us access to a world that would otherwise be confined to Mr Z’s head.
Minecraft gives Mr Z a way to express himself that is natural and appropriate for him, that he enjoys, and that he can share. How liberating for him, to have a tool that enables him to share and communicate all the amazing ideas he wants to share and communicate! Minecraft, then, is a cornerstone to Mr Z’s interaction with his family; it is an interface between us and Mr Z.
But the benefits of games like Minecraft go beyond Mr Z’s very specific use of it to help him represent and recreate his imaginative workings. The potential of Minecraft, and games like it, is located in its social currency: Minecraft is the second-highest selling computer game of all time, with a monthly player base of 55 million, and although it has special appeal to the autistic community (as witnessed by the player base of autistic servers like Autcraft), it is equally treasured and beloved within mainstream communities.
Now, research tells us that the most successful social encounters for neurodivergent children have their foundations in activities based around shared interests and passions. Scaffolding socialising through shared interests is effective not only in promoting social engagement for our children, but equally in supporting such engagement. Research also shows us that collaborative virtual environments offer unique opportunities for autistic children to engage socially, and to collaborate and communicate with their peers, with fewer risks and challenges than socialising solely face-to-face: these environments facilitate communication, interaction, socialisation, collaboration, and the formation of meaningful relationships. They allow our children to socialise authentically autistically, rather than holding them to ransom with neurotypical norms.
In our house then, many of our play-dates – whether they are with neurodivergent or neurotypical peers – are Minecraft play-dates. Since Minecraft is an environment in which players can join together to play virtually in a unique, shared world, it allows my boys to socialise with their peers in the context of their passions, respectful of their neurology, and without the stresses and challenges of traditional play. Their play on Minecraft is usually collaborative, cooperative, interactive, and prolonged. And they are hugely competent in it. Within Minecraft, my boys are set up to be socially successful, because they excel at something with universal appeal and popularity in both the neurotypical and neurodivergent populations.
For my boys, as for many others like them, Minecraft actively encourages and supports them to form authentic, respectful peer relationships, grounded in reciprocal passions and shared interests, humour, enthusiasm, appreciation, and playful competition. Virtual environments, such as Minecraft, respect a neurodivergent way of socialising and offer alternative avenues for social expression and communication. For our family, Minecraft has helped the boys foster quality friendships, based in mutual support, trust, humour, reliability and reciprocity, which are then developed and maintained both within and without virtual environments.
It’s interesting… when my boys have play-dates that don’t include a virtual element, when they are forced into a traditional, neurotypical pattern of socialisation (which admittedly I don’t allow often), I can almost guarantee two results. Firstly, the play is parallel and limited; we can manage perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes of side-by-side play that is rarely cooperative and is often frustrated by the nuances and subtleties of neurotypical expectations. Secondly, after the playdate, one (or more likely all) of my boys will be absolutely exhausted and usually on the brink of meltdown. Minecraft (and indeed gaming more generally), on the other hand, provides them with a feeling of social competence (this is something they’re good at, something they excel at, and something they enjoy), as well as social stamina.
So, next time you go to judge someone else’s use of technology, next time you feel a tut-tut emerging because someone proposes a Minecraft play-date, or because you feel that their children have Too Much Screen… Stop, and think of this.
And, next time someone challenges your child’s technology usage – next time you experience that heavy feeling of guilt as some well-meaning aunt or grandparent or friend or professional looks askance at your child absorbed in a virtual world – remind yourself of the importance of this tool, of its potential to boost your child’s social self-esteem, of its communicative benefits. And calm that guilt. It’s OK.