Introspection on Education

Currently in Australia, parents are scurrying to find the right educational setting for their Autistic children beginning school for the first time. Or for their children changing schools for the first, or second, or third time, as previous educational settings have become untenable or unworkable or detrimental to their child’s mental, emotional, social or academic health. Or all of those things. Our school year follows the calendar year, and I know many, many parents who are searching desperately to find the perfect fit for their Autistic poppet for the new year. Or, more accurately, who are searching for an adequate educational fit for their child.

I can’t help but think that the worry that this decision causes, and the burden that parents carry — the weight of whether their choice of school environment is the right one for their child and what harm it might do if they’ve got it wrong — speaks volumes to the state of education here.

Ostensibly, it may not seem like writing about schools is a good fit for me, since I homeschool my children after I withdrew them from school, and have no real intention of re-entering them into the mainstream (or any other) system unless they desire it (which, for the record, at this time they vehemently do not). But I am almost as passionate about all of the other Autistic children who find themselves in educational institutions as I am about my own children. And the fact that so many parents agonise as to whether to send their child to a mainstream environment or to a specialist support unit or school, the fact that I know parents who are selling their homes to relocate to the only school they’ve found that might cater for their little one’s particular needs… well, that is both tragic and emphatically unsatisfactory.

Truth be told, I find it deeply troubling, if not downright abhorrent, that many parents of Autistic children have become resigned to holding the educational system to the standard of ‘not actively damaging’ because their efforts of trying to achieve excellence for their children have been thwarted again and again. It’s not parents’ fault. It just speaks to the reality that, when the hope for an exceptional education for our children has been dashed time and time again, when that optimism has been ground away by years of benign neglect or outright bigotry, all that is the left is the ‘hope’ that our children’s schools do no harm, even if they do no good either.

Perhaps I sound bitter. I am. I think a systemic failure to see my magnificent, creative, unique boys as anything but wonderful is a travesty. But that’s not the point I want to make here. If I could fix – even just bring attention to the existence of – some of the pervasive and shockingly damaging practices that are prevalent in schools (usually born from ignorance or misguidedness rather than conscious prejudicial intent), other Autistic children may just fare better at school than my children did.

In Australia, our educational system is far from inclusive. Unlike in some other countries, we still have segregated Autism support units attached to schools, as well as specialist Autism schools. To be fair, there is such a gargantuan gulf between our country’s current mainstream educational system and truly inclusive schooling that parents need alternatives for if (and, all too often, when) mainstream schooling fails or harms their child. Or, indeed if they can’t see their children succeeding in mainstream in the first place because, well, did I mention that most mainstream schools are still so far from inclusive? So currently, those units and specialist schools serve a purpose, at least until we improve our mainstream services. And whilst we know that research shows that mainstream inclusive schooling is best for everyone and is preferable to segregated disability-specific support units or schools, many parents rightly question whether this research is applicable to them and to their child’s lived reality, when their local mainstream school may be a very far cry from inclusive.

The reality in Australia is that we have a very long way to go to make education optimal for our children. Inclusive education — the ideal that everyone is educated together — is not really even on the political and social agenda in Australia in any significant way, and we’re not really even discussing what might make mainstream schooling more inclusive. In a country that still questions climate change and has an abysmal record on many social justice issues, inclusive education is simply not a compelling or politically expedient topic here. 

And, just to clarify, by inclusion I mean genuine inclusion for our Autistic community, based on Autism acceptance, a commitment to allowing Autistic children to claim their Autistic identity and to learn and socialise Autistically, and the deep pedagogical knowledge to implement methods of teaching and learning that suit Autistic neurocognitive processing. I don’t mean the superficial use of ‘inclusive’ to designate the unsupported integration of our children into mainstream classrooms, or the attempted assimilation of Autistic children to become more typical, more ‘normal’.

I should feel more optimistic about our children’s education: there are inspiring individuals and individual schools doing good work to make educational settings accepting and respectful of Autistic neurology and functioning. But I’m not especially optimistic. Or at least, my optimism is for my potential grandchildren rather than my own children, because the road to inclusion seems very long and rough indeed.

Perhaps my pessimism stems from a flaw I am observing in the current trend in educational thinking as it’s actually practised in schools. You see, there’s a glaring oxymoron in the current educational approach that tempers my confidence in the prospect of an educational revolution. Fairly recently there has been a shift in educational thinking that sees teachers identifying and utilising Autistic strengths and interests in the classroom. Awesome, I hear you say; surely not too much to complain about there. And yet… whilst I have absolute faith that some teachers are using Autistic strengths and interests to maximise our children’s enjoyment of, and engagement with, their education, there is simultaneously a certain undercurrent that makes me uneasy. Strengths and interests are too often used to counterbalance a deficits-based or pathologised approach to Autism. A teacher’s acknowledgement of Autistic strengths is too often laced with a paternalistic and patronising nuance, offered as a consolation prize, offered from a place of condescending superiority.

I don’t want to suggest that this is done consciously (or at least, not done consciously by everyone). But simply mentioning Autistic strengths doesn’t negate a deficits view of Autism. Benignly identifying strengths whilst concurrently treating Autism as a ‘disorder’ (however it may be identified in the DSM-5 or ICD-10) undermines the very idea of strengths. There appears to be a decidedly self-congratulatory mood among departments and systems that so many teachers have finally recognised the truth of Autistic strengths. And yet, the parents I talk to suggest that if you scratch beneath the surface, the idea of strengths is regularly used as a veneer to mask more prevailing, deficits-based approaches to Autism. As I said, I’m not sure this subtlety is always intended, but it strikes me that too many educators (and indeed researchers for that matter) still hold onto a basic ableism that sees Autism as different and less. But they reconcile themselves to that (very probably) unconscious bigotry and make it more palatable by what is necessarily a superficial reference to Autistic strengths.

Recently I was at a conference about Autism and education. The people who came to that conference were those who are dedicated to understanding best practice in education for our children. There were excellent speakers, inspiring presentations. And yet… I suppose what I really hoped for at the conference was to hear about how schools are supporting Autistic culture to flourish, about how they are respecting Autistic ways of socialising, about how they recognise that accepting their Autistic students exactly as they are, and accommodating their needs appropriately, is vital to each child’s self-acceptance and self-esteem, not to mention their learning and intrinsic motivation to attend school. I had hoped to hear those things in stereo, from different sectors, states, schools. It wasn’t reasonable to expect to hear those things, of course. As an Autistic mother, my priorities for education are not necessarily aligned with the priorities of schools and departments. But I had hoped that maybe somewhere I might hear someone offer the ‘silver bullet’ that would put us firmly on the road to genuine acceptance and inclusion. I had hoped that the number of speakers advocating for acceptance would outweigh those still holding onto Autism as disorder. I had hoped for more teachers, more principals, more learning support staff to attend, to show me that schools know that there is more to do, and what they currently do is simply not enough.

I’m not sure what my point is here. Expect excellence for your child? Accept nothing but the highest quality education? Unite our voices to demand more, better, best for our children? Or maybe just the simple reflection that, ultimately, however far we’ve come, there is so very far still to go.


#TakeTheMaskOff (But What if I Don’t Know How?)

This afternoon I was describing the concept of Autistic masking to a close friend, who is not directly a part of the Autistic community. I explained that currently there is a robust campaign for Autistics to take their masks off, and to be who they are, authentically and genuinely, without censure, guilt, discrimination or repercussions.

I told my friend about the way in which, as an Autistic woman, I use masks to camouflage my less socially accepted traits and behaviours. Masking helps me to behave or perform in a way that is congenial and expected for the neurotypical majority, a way to let others experience my Autism more comfortably for them… although not necessarily for me. Masking allows me to compensate for my perceived deficits by constructing identities that are more conventionally satisfactory to those I am around.

Masking certainly isn’t solely an Autistic attribute: I think most people mask in different social contexts. I know my neurotypical husband demonstrates different qualities when he goes to work, or when he returns to his home town to visit his college mates, and undoubtedly this adaptation is a type of masking. But for me, I’m pretty sure the intensity and focus of my masking is different. It is the comprehensive and elaborate nature of my Autistic masking that makes it distinctive.

It should have been easy, then, to provide my friend with a kind of ‘compare and contrast’ between my masked self and my real self. But when I tried to use examples from my own life, I just couldn’t manage it.

It’s not that I don’t mask. On the contrary, I am an expert masker. But I am such an expert masker, and I have developed my masks to be disguises of such nuanced, subtle, finessed complexity, that I struggle to find myself… And as I contemplated writing this blog, it occurred to me: I don’t know who I am.

So many of the other Autists I have read during #TakeTheMaskOff campaign have some sense of who they are when their masks are laid aside and they present as their natural, authentic selves without affectation or artifice. But I don’t. I don’t know who I am. And despite my best efforts, I can’t identify where my masks stop and my ‘me’ begins. So, on the cusp of turning forty, I now realise that masking is so habituated for me that I have no sense of myself without them, no access to a ‘me’ sans masks.

I have spent so many years refining my masks, observing how others behave and speak and perform, and shading my masks into accurate and intricate devices for mimicry: the trappings of my social acceptance, disguising the quirks that might exclude me. I have spent so many years arranging my face, my responses, my outward emotions to fit the patterns I’ve observed in others, to present myself as the type of person I perceive others want me to be.

And now, now that I have a moment to strip that scaffolding away and show me as me, I can’t find her. She’s buried beneath the weight of expectations and artificial, learned pretension.

But then a part of me thinks that that’s reductive, and not a little unfair. Because some of my masks are comforting. They are reliable. They make me like myself. They let me be the sort of person I want to be for the people I love. I am a pleaser, a rule follower, someone who spends considerable time and energy making sure that I am making others happy. The ultimate good girl. And masks have  — absolutely and undoubtedly — let me be that person. So, I think that I have to recognise that some masks I wear for me, because I like to please.

Maybe that misses the point of the call to #TakeTheMaskOff. But some of my masks serve a distinct purpose that is not only useful, but essentially enriching, helping me to manage parts of me that might otherwise be debilitating and incapacitating (like my anxiety).

For example: I am an excellent public speaker. I enjoy speaking to a crowd. And I have spent years perfecting my public speaking mask to cover the queasiness in my stomach and the bile that sits in my throat. My mask translates all the energy that amasses in my anxious, flappy hands into animated gesticulating which people read as passion and charisma. I tweak my mask to fit my script, smoothing a furrow here, deepening my tone there, projecting empathy, channeling outrage… I put on my public speaking mask and I feel confident, articulate, insightful, valuable. I have something to contribute. I speak and people listen.

But then again, when I take that mask off, I feel relief. It is me in high performance mode, and I have no stamina for perpetuating that performance over extended periods. It is simply too exhausting. But even as the bile recedes and the nausea subsides, I swap one mask for another, more comfortable version. Less energy and maintenance required. But nevertheless, another mask.

In the past, when I visualised my brain, I used to see a complicated filing room, with scripts for every scenario I’d ever encountered, reworked for success. Now, alongside the rows of filing cabinets, all carefully categorised, I see a Game of Thrones-esque Hall of Faces – the bodiless skinned faces of my various masks that camouflage and disguise me. They are all me, ostensibly, but they are all subtly distinct, representing the shades and tones of my different personas. It isn’t scary, until I wonder which one is the real ‘me’. Until I realise I may have lost her in the rows of faces that are me, but not me.

Last night, as I lay awake, I could hear and feel my husband breathing on one side of me, my little boy on the other. They weren’t breathing in sync. There were snorts, and gushes of breath, murmurs and rumbles. Each exhale grated against my senses. I could hear the excess saliva in the slight gurgle, the minor nasal blockage in the undercurrent of a whistle.  It felt like every breath was a cattle prod to my ear drums, sending unpleasant jolts through my brain. I wanted to wrench off both my ears so great was the internal pressure I felt from those seemingly insignificant noises. I wanted to strike out, flee, break free from the suffocation of hearing that breathing. But I didn’t. I buried my needs, suppressed my desires, pushed them down to the remotest part of my being, smothered by my Hall of Faces.

It is similar at the dinner table. The noises of slurping, chewing, swallowing, the tinkle of fork against teeth, the gulp of water, the sloppy sounds of mastication… In those moments, if I visualise myself, I am a small child, curled defensively in foetal position, rocking, cupping my ears, waiting for the pain of the noise to subside. Pain perhaps isn’t the right word: it is an unbearable pressure that pushes to explode outwards. And through my masks I have taught myself to push that pressure down into an internal implosion, unnoticed by those around me, unremarked upon as I continue to present a façade of serene apathy.

Is that who I am? The trapped girl inside my mind, weighed down by an inescapable need to please, to bury herself in layers of acceptability and neutrality? Repressed. Suppressed. Inhibited. Intimidated by the need to be something other than myself, to stifle and internalise the inherent Otherness inside. I don’t know.

A few weeks ago, my Mum was watching old videos of me as a little girl of maybe eight or nine. It was my birthday party. I was happily playing party games with my friends, laughing, blithe and relaxed in the social context. My Mum noted how profoundly ‘typical’ I appear. Not Autistic. Not Other. Not isolated. And I wonder: was I masking then? Was I already developing this complex tapestry woven from threads I adopted from observing others upon which I now rely so heavily? Was I already binding myself to their comforting familiarity, living my life essentially vicariously? Having no sense of self, have I always just adopted the characteristics of those around me to ‘fit’ into the contexts I find myself?

I don’t know what it is to feel myself, but I know what I like – what I am like – when I am alone. And I really like to be alone, although I have rare opportunity for that. I like to listen to the same song on repeat for hours. I like to dance and move to that song, choreographing the perfect response to the music. I like to pace and speak aloud to myself to process what I’ve done, what I’m doing, what I want to do. Actually, I love talking to myself, and together with me, I have protracted and involved conversations aloud, debating, listing, planning, organising. I like my house to be just so, the cushions on the couch on the right angle, with the zipper facing down, beds made and wrinkle-free, towels hung up with the folds on the right, the bask facing out, tags facing in. I like to eat often and small, without reference to set breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I like to have a hot tea constantly in my hand. And I like to have the fans on, no matter the weather.

Are those preferences ‘me’? Is that ‘me’? If I gave myself more of an opportunity to explore that woman, would I find myself amongst the masks? I don’t know. I hope so.

Since we met, my now husband has told me that I am more tired than I should be. That probably sounds patronising, but it is more of a clinical observation of my state of being. I am constantly wearied, exhausted, chronically and acutely fatigued. Even when I am well rested, even when I have little happening, I come to the end of each and every day with a heavy sense of being utterly drained, shattered, spent. And as I have thought more and more about masking, I think I finally understand why I am always, permanently tired. The effort I expend to internalise and quell myself, and the commensurate effort I expend to don and maintain my masks, is immense. And that massive effort is exhausting, a gargantuan undertaking that depletes my vitality and undermines my energy. And how can I find the strength to find ‘me’, when I have spent all that strength on preserving my masks instead?

Ultimately, masking for me is liberating and debilitating in equal measure. I don’t know how to take my masks off. I don’t know how to live without masks. And they provide me with opportunities to be what I need to be for the people I love. But living a masked existence has robbed me of me. And I owe it to myself to try and find me. I owe it to the people I love to trust them enough to get to know me too. Even if I don’t  feel ready to #TakeMyMasksOff completely. Yet.

Exploring Autistic Space

When I first read Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, one of the many moments that stayed with me was his description of Autistics coming together with other Autistics, the liberation and joy that is finding your tribe. He describes – as do many others – that moment when Autistics come together, without judgement, without censure, without fear, free to be themselves, tangibly and profoundly. From the moment I have been reading about Autistic Space (spaces by, with and for Autistics), I have been longing for the day that I might experience them and find my tribe.

I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but as an Autistic woman in her thirties I have spent my whole life on the outside looking in, not belonging, not comfortable, not at ease. It’s not that I don’t want social connection. Actually, the opposite is true – I crave it. But that kind of connection has thus far eluded me.

I don’t assume that when I gather with other people, I will experience any kind of vital, basic social bond. I don’t assume that I’ll naturally experience the sort of social relationship that unites and connects me to others. Like for most people, I’m sure, the sense of me being an integral part of a greater whole is accentuated and intensified when I am among people who share something in common with myself. But it’s never complete.

I wonder how many people enter a room of other people with an expectation of acceptance and companionship. Because I don’t. I enter a room of other people and experience nausea and anxiety and an expectation of exclusion and awkward loneliness. Or I enter a room wearing a mask of socially-acceptable competence and I function, but that woman is not me, she is a façade. So, if I felt them, “acceptance” and “companionship” never really felt like mine to claim.

I want that. I want to walk into a room and have the experiences behind me to support an informed assumption that people will like me, and that I will be a valued addition to that social group. I want to know what it’s like to muster the courage finally to say something, and for that something to be respected and appreciated. I want to know what it’s like not to have to muster the courage to say something in the first place. I want to be me, really me, and feel that those around me aren’t just acquiescing to my quirks, but actually embrace them totally.

It’s not that I don’t have friends. I do. I have a few absolutely wonderful, dedicated and generally awesome friends. They’re a small group, but gosh I have quality over quantity. What I don’t have, however, is a people, a tribe. I don’t have a group. And I want one.

Last week I got one. I had the opportunity to join an Autistic Space with thirteen other Autistics, as well as a number of Autistic mentors, supporters and organisers.

Walking into Autistic Space for the first time was absolutely terrifying. I had never fit into any social group ever. The longing for this to be my place, my tribe, my moment to be me, to feel acceptance, to know connection, was so deep, so nauseating, so overwhelming in its intensity, that I could hardly bring myself to enter the room. What if, like every other time in my life, I experienced rejection here too? What if all the hope that I’d built up, all that optimism, was not fulfilled? How would my heart survive if here, too, everything I’d dreamt of, hoped for, was dashed and disappointed? If I didn’t belong here, surely I didn’t belong anywhere. If these weren’t my people, then I was destined to live my life without that connection.

I’m not going to exaggerate here. I didn’t walk into Autistic Space to applause (Autistic style or otherwise). No one greeted me as the-long-lost-person-they’d-been-waiting-to-meet-all-their-life. No rousing welcome was heard. But then someone handed me an adult colouring-in book, and some putty, and a groovy new fidget toy I’ve never encountered before, and it struck me that I was welcome. Not a prodigious, gregarious neurotypical style welcome, but a warmer, sincerer welcome than I’d ever encountered elsewhere in a quiet, Autistic, accepting way.

When I first walked into Autistic Space I was like a tightly wound flower bud, curled and folded in on myself to protect myself from what I have learnt is inevitable pain, hurt and disappointment in social environments. But in Autistic Space every conversation, every shared experience and memory, every gesture of acceptance, every respectful acknowledgement of my needs, encouraged me to unfurl my petals.

When my stim-putty was appreciated by many of the other participants, it felt like sunshine on my petals, coaxing me to open, to blossom and bloom and be beautiful. When people laughed at my puns and my quirky humour, it was with me, not at me. When I gave feedback or suggested feed-forward, people listened and truly heard my words. Heard and appreciated them and thought that they were insightful and valuable.

All the defenses I have erected over years to shield myself from the hurt of loneliness began to disappear, as each of my petals – my stims, my passions, my intellect, my puns, my songs, my laughter, my movements, my humour, my creativity, my analysis – unfurled a little more, to reveal the real me. It wasn’t immediate, but slowly I was coaxed by my Autistic peers to emerge as something infinitely more beautiful than I was before when I was the mere promise of a flower yet to thrive. Autistic Space was my sunshine, my nutrient, the food I needed to realise who I am.

I spent four days in Autistic space. I coloured my way through the majority of that time. I flicked and flapped. I stimmed with putty. I clapped silently. I acknowledged my sensory needs. I made friends. Lots of real, genuine friends, friends with whom I will continue to keep in contact, though we are geographically separated. I shared myself, and I realised that in that sharing, I became more.

Austistic Space is a gift. It’s a gift I’d like to give to other Autistics, and to my Autistic children. It was a glorious, peaceful celebration of potential. And I will be forever grateful for that gift, even as my brain grinds back into the gear of performing in a non-Autistic world.

* NB. It occurs to me that the image attached to this blog should rightly be more flower, less fish. But this image is one that I coloured during my time in Autistic Space, and it sparkles like I do when I’m thinking about those few precious days.

Minecraft Matters

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.