This is why I see children with autism very differently than everyone else

When I started Autcraft, I did so to help out the parents on social media that cried out for someplace that their autistic children could play together without the fear of bullying or torment. On June 23rd, I told a small number of those parent and within two days, I received over 750 emails.

That was when I realized just how big this bullying problem really is.

Since then, Autcraft has kept thousands of children safe from bullies. But that’s not all. That’s just the start.

Children came to the server shy, scared and unsure of what to expect. Many didn’t speak in public chat for quite some time. You could say that it went as most people would expect of children that struggle with communication and social structures. Anxiety, fear and shyness were the foundation that most new players started their experience on the server with.

What happened from there is truly amazing.

The players opened up to each other. They supported each other, they shared with each other, praised each other, encouraged each other and lifted each other higher. They did these things because they knew that there would be no one there to push them back down again.

no fearFor the first time in their lives, they were free from the burden of fear. No longer afraid to be bullied or judged or embarrassed or even to fail, these kids felt safe enough to share who they are, what they like, what they think and they even felt safe enough to make mistakes. They weren’t afraid to spell things wrong or to say the wrong thing. They weren’t afraid to admit that they were interested in things that people elsewhere might tease them for.

As they spoke up more and more, their reading and writing improved, manners improved, their control over their emotions improved, they worked together to solve problems and learned from each other… the progress that they made baffled their therapists.

Many people credit me for this as I am the creator of the server but the truth is that there are many factors to consider.

Anonymity has always played a big part in how people behave online. But for these kids with autism, it isn’t the biggest contributor to their success. In fact, for most that have played on servers prior to Autcraft, their fears only grew. Constant bullying, frustrations and rage often meant that they couldn’t even participate much less find any enjoyment. This is why their parents reached out in the first place. It’s why Autcraft was created. Their anonymity did not help them there.

However on Autcraft, that same anonymity does help. In the game, they are an avatar. That’s it. They don’t have to think about the their body language, facial expressions, any fidgeting they might do or people making noises around them. In the game, they’re a collection of pixels as are the people they’re talking to. There is nothing to focus on nor anything to distract them. The social aspect is narrowed down and streamlined.

The second biggest factor is that I created the server based on a foundation of communication. Anyone caught doing anything wrong will be spoken too. We explain what they did wrong, why it’s wrong and better alternatives. Children are encouraged to confess so that things can be fixed and moved on from. They learn that we don’t get mad and that they don’t have to be afraid of us. They learn that we understand them and if not, that we want to. They become comfortable talking to us because of that understanding and they learn that being open and honest from the start is the best way to avoid having things get worse later. They are no longer afraid of making us angry, they are no longer afraid that they’ll be punished and they are no longer afraid to admit that they’ve been wrong.

So what is the biggest factor towards the success of all of these great kids? Themselves and the community that they’ve created. This community gets stronger and stronger all the time and it’s all in how they treat and support each other. Once the fear is gone and they start working together, nothing can stop them.

Once they are free to share their interests, they find other children that share those interests. No longer being afraid means that they don’t feel like they have to fake their interests to either hide or to seem like a desirable friend to others. No matter how much they think others might find their interests odd, there is almost always someone that also has that very same interest. Once they find each other, they teach each other new things and share new things and really start to grow and progress together.

They aren’t being taught how to read and write, they are actively trying to get better at it on their own and in their own way. They have a desire to do it because it excites them, because it makes things better for them. Before the server, it seemed like people were trying to force them to learn things they just didn’t understand.

I’ve seen autistic children talk for the first time ever after playing on my server. I’ve seen countless children make friends for the first time ever after being on my server. I’ve written letters of reference for children that have gone off to get their first jobs after being on my server. I’ve seen children become role models and leaders!

All of this and so much more and it’s because they’re not afraid. That’s it. That’s all it is. They aren’t afraid of what a bully might say or do. They aren’t afraid of being teased for who they are or what they like. They aren’t afraid of being embarrassed for saying or doing something wrong. They aren’t afraid to make a mistake.

When most people think of children with autism or even when they talk to children with autism, the child they think they see before them isn’t the true child. The person they’re talking to is a collection of fears and anxieties. The child may even simply be doing what they think you want them to do rather than what they’d do naturally. They present to you a facade that hides the real child deep inside. The fear of what you think of them, of how you will judge them and of all the ways in which they might do something wrong… these fears are preventing you from talking to the true child hidden within.

On Autcraft, within their community of peers, friends, supporters, brothers, sisters, in that place where these kids feel safest of all is where I get to see them for who they really are. They are strong, they are proud, they are funny and they are brilliant.

If you want to see real progress, real growth, real education and real happiness, you must remove the fear. If you want to see a child for whom they truly are, you must remove their fear. If you want to be you… you must not be afraid.

When you can strip away that fear, whether you overcome it or push it aside, when fear is no longer holding you back, you stand taller and you feel stronger. When you can do that, you find people that will support you, encourage you, be your friend and be a part of your team.

No matter your race, gender, sexuality, religion, political views or anything else, whether you have autism or not, no matter who you are or where you are in life… when you remove the fear from your life, you’ll find people that will join you and together, anything is possible.

Without fear, anything is possible.

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Connecting with a child that has autism – which is real? Face to face or virtual?

Talking with some of the parents that help to run Autcraft, we had an interesting discussion about how some professionals or “experts” still don’t see any value in video games because, from their perspective, they are not “real.” But what is real? Is it a face to face conversation? How about a conversation via the phone? Or a video call? How about two avatars that represent ourselves that are face to face, talking?

When an expert talks about what is real, they come from the traditional, textbook approach to therapy in which the only way to truly understand and assess a person is via physical observation… being face to face. And many times this is very true. I wouldn’t want anyone trying to diagnose my children with anything without having met them at least once.

They’re not entirely wrong in that, from a virtual perspective, which is the one I’m most accustomed to, I find that it’s easy to almost sort of forget that the person you’re talking to is a very real person. When a player is acting out on my Minecraft server or behaving inappropriately, it’s easy to lose patience with them or become frustrated with them, especially if it’s an ongoing, repetitive behavior. Really though, if we had a webcam on them or were in the room with them to see the innocent looking little boy or girl who’s not understanding what they’re doing or on the brink of crying… we would approach the situation quite differently. Perhaps our patience wouldn’t leave us so quickly. Perhaps we’d better perceive the behavior and thus, the cause and solution for it.

Still though, having been talking to and helping literally thousands of children with autism over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that there is a very real benefit to not being face to face with them. By removing the anxiety, fear and shyness that can come so easily to a child with autism when face to face with anyone, much less a stranger, you can finally get to what is truly real… the child.

All children, especially those with autism, will likely take a very long time (if ever) to finally open up to you and reveal their true selves. Finding a way through their fear or anxiety or even just their desire to please you by saying what you want to hear, it’s extremely difficult to have a child reveal their true personality. Some parents are actually still waiting for this to happen from their own children, so what hope does an “expert” have just by insisting that what’s real is simply, face to face.

Having a virtual conversation means not having to think about your body language, facial expressions, eye contact, fidgeting, what the other person’s body language or facial expressions might mean, you can take the time to choose your words carefully and also you feel more free to just say what’s on your mind because… well, as ironic as all of this is… it feels like it’s not real! If it doesn’t feel real to the child (no human there, no repercussions, no one will ever know), then there’s no reason not to do and say what ever is on your mind.

So sure, maybe the experts don’t see it as real and maybe those kids don’t really see it as real either but for me, the guy in the middle of it all, I welcome that because I can use that finally get to what is truly real… the child’s real self.

Why does Autcraft make such a huge difference in people’s lives if it’s just a game and not real to so many people?

lisa simpson friendshipWell, because we all know the value in having someone to talk to. Someone that you can be honest with, someone that makes you feel safe and someone that you know that you can be real with. You can share your fears, insecurities, talk about feeling suicidal or even, talk about the wonderful things in your life, the things that make you feel great that you fear people might tease you for… you can share as much or as little as you wish too because you are in a place where you don’t have to be face to face to feel safe. And video games, in my case, my Minecraft server, gives many of these kids exactly that. A not real environment where they feel more real than anywhere else in their lives.

So instead of trying to figure out what is and isn’t real, perhaps instead you should be asking which interpretation of real is most important to you.

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Helping you understand Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Sensory Processing Disorder lately and that’s largely because most people, the average person, can’t really imagine what that’s like. A lot of it makes no sense to them. And I’ll get back to that point shortly but first, I thought I’d try to give you a few examples to maybe give you a better idea of what it’s like.

When you live in the city all year long and decide to go camping, like, real camping, in the woods with a tent, at some point in the night you’ll look up at the stars and realize that it’s quiet. Very quiet. Like, eerily quiet. That’s when it really sinks in just how loud the city really is. It’s still an abstract idea in the sense that you don’t suddenly become aware of every specific sound but nevertheless, you realize that city was loud! You hear things all the time! Humming appliances, buzzing lights, traffic, people talking, phones ringing, televisions and music on somewhere, planes flying over head… there’s just this big ball of noise all around you all the time and it’s not until it’s all taken away and you’re left with a tent and a night sky that it hits you…  it’s quiet.

danger noise hazard signOn a smaller scale, another example, you know how through out the day you’re going about your day, watching television, having dinner, taking a shower, doing homework… then late at night, you turn off the television and turn off the lights and head for bed and you hear it. The fridge. The motor just powered up. That thing was powering up and powering down all day long, over and over again and making noise in between but you never noticed it until everything else was turned off and it was quiet.

I can write about these things and you can relate to these things because we’ve all had these experiences, or similar experiences anyway. But actually, not all of us have.

For many people with Sensory Processing Disorder, they don’t have those revelations of “wow, I just noticed that!” because they’re very keenly aware of all that noise all the time. They’re very aware that the fridge is powering up and down all day even when you’re not. They’re very aware of the traffic and planes and music and people talking and machines humming and everything else in the city. They’re bombarded by all of this all of the time because for them, it’s not background noise. It’s noise. There is no filter in their mind that says “this isn’t important so push it into the background.”

Getting it? Well, consider this: that’s just one of the many senses we have.

Bright lights, flickering lights, colourful lights, scratchy fabrics, hard chair, soft chairs, people touching you, sweet tastes, sour tastes, stringy foods, mushy foods, hard foods, strong smells, lingering smells… I could go on and on and on. All of these things and more are not filtered for many people like it is for you.

You put on a sweater that you might describe as “not the softest but it’ll do” while someone with Sensory Processing Disorder would describe it as a thousand spiders with razor feet crawling all over them.

And that’s the take away here. These things that I describe to you are not minor annoyances. These aren’t “ya, that would suck” experiences that most people think they are. These truly are torture devices.  Imagine try to go about your day with headphones on and in those headphones you hear 30 people talking, 5 planes, 12 cars, 6 machines running and loud music on top of all of it but you can’t take the headphones off or turn it down. Imagine that for 2 days. 3 days. Every day. That would drive you mad. Now imagine that also happens with sights, tastes, smells and the things you touch as well.

Does it still make no sense to you? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Most people think in terms of what relates to them.

When we’re first born, we lack the theory of mind to think of situations from another person’s perspective. Most people develop that as a toddler but there’s always still a small part that lingers where… if it makes no sense to you, then there’s no reason to accept it.

I see it a lot on my Minecraft server actually even with hard set rules. If they don’t understand why a rule is a rule, then they just assume that it doesn’t apply to them since it makes no sense. Meanwhile many of the rules are there for exactly this reason… such as colourful text in chat. If all chat was colourful, it would be too hard on many young player’s senses. But some players don’t think that’s true because it’s not for them and therefore, should be ok for them to do.

It’s like… if I can handle all this noise, and this guy can and this guy can… then you can too no matter what you say.

If you are still struggling with this then this is what I suggest you do: Get a recording of noise. Just noise. Background city noise or what ever. Have that loop into some headphones that you wear for one day. Next, put some steel wool in your shirt. Doesn’t have to be a lot. Just a clump of the stuff in there. Every hour, take a bite of a lemon and smell some smelling salts. Finally, get one of those little devices that the doctor has to look into your pupils with and shine that in your eyes every 15 minutes throughout the day.

Sounds crazy? Perhaps. But try it, for one day. Wake up and begin and don’t stop until bed.

Then you might understand what it’s like for some people.

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How I went from a very shy and private autistic to a very outspoken and public autistic

Something truly bizarre happened last night. While on the phone with my mother, I found myself saying the following:

“So today I was in a news article on the largest news site in Australia, my book publisher emailed me to say ‘You must be busier than ever! Take all the time you need.’, a television show producer asked me to be on her show and an expo convention asked me to exhibit at their convention this fall.”

How did this happen? What’s happened to me?

hide computerI am a guy with Aspergers, I have two sons, one with autism and one without. I work from home, I like to go to the little neighborhood park across the street and I love to play video games, especially when I can do these things with my kids. I have less than no money, I have lots of stress and I’m over weight. I’m like the peace and quiet, I’m very awkward around other people and would gladly not talk to anyone at all if given that as an option.

Two years ago, I started what I thought would be a quiet little Minecraft server with maybe a handful of people on it. My way of helping out some parents that were in search of other parents on social media so that their autistic children could play together in peace. I just wanted to help. No one had to know.

No one had to know.

It took less than an hour of telling those parents about it before I realized that this wasn’t going to be a quiet little peaceful Minecraft server. Less than 2 days later, I had over 750 emails requesting to join.

Still though, we continued along relatively quietly. Word of mouth spread like wildfire bringing us far more players than I ever dreamed imaginable but outside of the autism community, it was still very much our little hidden secret. Autism parents thanked me, told me how great it was… it was nice.

At the end of 2014, 1.5 years in, all of that changed. First BuzzFeed found us and then CHCH television. From the better part of December and January, I suddenly found myself in the middle of my “15 minutes of fame.” And it was scary.

I like to think I did alright, being on television and answering hours and hours of questions. But that was not me. That’s not why I started the server and it’s most certainly not anything I had ever dreamed of doing nor did I want to. I’m a quiet and shy guy. I like to keep to myself. I like to not draw attention to myself. I kept thinking… no one had to know.

So here we are, June 2015 and I find myself with a book publisher wanting me to write a book, television producers phoning me and conventions wanting me to make appearances. A shy, quiet, wanting to be at home on the couch with an X-Box controller dad with autism who wonders to himself… what ever happened to “no one has to know?”

So what happened?

Somewhere along the way I sort of snapped. I was exhausted and I had been talking to suicidal children on the server far too often and it hit me… the server has done better than anyone imagined but it did so due to how bad the bullying of autistic Minecraft players really is. I realized then that this wasn’t a story about success but rather a story about tragedy.

If my mission was to give those children with autism a safe place in the beginning, in that instant, it morphed into a mission to both make people aware and to put an end to the bullying.

I created “A Plea to the Minecraft Community” and have done so for two years in a row to help stop the bullying and I found myself pleading with the cameras and the microphones and the journalists to help me tell the world just how bad it really is.

I still didn’t like the spotlight, I still cringed every time the phone rang or I was asked to send them my Skype information but I did it anyway. I had to do it. It was me they wanted to talk to. They wanted to know what kind of person would start a server like that, devote the time like that, spend many sleepless nights talking to players like that… the story they wanted was as much about me as it was the actual server and I knew, deep down I knew that I haven’t made any sort of difference at all yet. They want to write about the difference the server makes? The difference I make? I want them to write about the difference I want them to help me make. I want them to write about the real problem.

What happened? I found a purpose. A reason to put my fears and shyness and my autistic tendencies aside and do it anyway because those kids (and some adults too) that I talk to on the server every day are worth it.

Last night, I discovered that I have another reason. One I’ve sort of known about all along but it never really hit me until right after I said that one very poignant sentence and more importantly, to whom I had said it.

I hang up my fears and desires to sit by myself and not answer the phone and I do it for my mother. As corny as that sounds. Growing up with autism and not knowing it, I struggled. I know I made her proud all the same but still, I struggled. It was hard for me and more often than not, and I mean, way more often, I felt like a failure. More so, I felt like I was letting her down. Her only son. What a let down I must have been.

So now I have a chance to make her proud. I have a chance to make a difference and I do so using all the wisdom and heart that she raised me with. I still struggle and I still feel like a failure a lot of times with no money and tons of stress but at the same time… book publishers are phoning me, television producers, journalists, convention organizers… me! I’m still just a dad, in his living room holding a video game controller in his hands, praying the phone doesn’t ring so that I won’t be forced to have to talk to someone.

And yet these people are phoning me and they’re phoning for all the right reasons. I’m not in the news because autistics have it hard or need services or are shut-ins… which I totally am. No, they want to hear about the wonderful things I’ve been doing all this time. All this time that I kept thinking ‘no one needs to know’.

Now I realize… the world does need to know. For those children that come to me for safety. Those children need to know. Their parents need to know. People need to know about them, how great they are and how unsafe they still are. How bad the bullying still is out there. The world needs to know.

And my mother, she needs to know. For all she’s done to raise me this way, to help me get this far and give me the tools to accomplish these things, I put aside my desires to say no to interviews and make myself do them. I want her to be a proud mother. I want her to be proud of her son. She deserves that much.

I know now what happened and even though I’ll likely never get used to it and always feel awkward about it, I now realize one thing… people need to know.

Given the right motivation, given the right reasons… a life time of being a struggling, shy and private autistic was thrown to the side and I found myself becoming a very outspoken and public autistic. A man with purpose. Given the right motivations, I believe any one else could do the same as well.

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The one thing I wish I could tell every depressed autistic child

enduranceSince starting Autcraft, I’ve talked to a lot of depressed autistics, mostly children. Many of them were suicidal. This is not something I recommend for most people to ever try. It is a very heavy burden that can weigh heavy on your heart after a while.

I find that this happens a lot for me because I am the ideal candidate for this to happen to. I’m an autistic adult who’s still a kid at heart and once was a depressed autistic kid just like them. To say that I can relate is a massive understatement.

For those of you that watch The Flash, the new television series about the super fast superhero, you’ll totally get what I’m talking about here but if you don’t, don’t worry, I’ll try to explain. In the television show, there is The Flash who can run crazy fast but there’s also another guy, the villain, who they call The Reverse Flash. He runs even faster. The problem is, the good guys don’t know who this Reverse Flash really is until he slips up. In an effort to help The Flash run faster than he’s ever run before, he begins encouraging him by explaining to him how to reach those speeds, how to feel as the speeds take over him, how to handle the experiences he’s now going through. It was then that The Flash, our hero, realized who The Reverse Flash was because only he would know what it was like. Only someone that has shared those experiences could truly understand him.

In my case, these children that come to me to talk to me about their lives because they know who their Reverse Flash is… I can tell them what they’re experiencing, what they’re feeling and hopefully, how to get through it faster. I understand.

When they start to tell me how alone they feel, I can explain exactly what it is they’re feeling in words that they’ve never been able to before. When they say that no one understands them, I not only describe exactly how that feels for me as well but in doing so, I show them that there really is someone that understands them.

So knowing that, I’ve come to realize that there is only one common piece of advice that I give to most people that seems to help… and it’s the one thing that I wish that I could tell all young autistic children everywhere: “there’s an older you that needs you to endure this.”

When I think back to the younger me, I wish so hard that there was some way that I could just go back in time, to myself, just to tell myself, “I know it’s hard. And I know you never believe it when anyone else says it but maybe you’ll believe it from me, from yourself… endure this because it’s worth it.”

We’ve all heard “it gets better” but we all know that a child never believes that. Not when life is that bad. There is no one that can ever convince you of it. That goes double if you’re autistic. I can’t tell you why but if you are autistic, you know it.

But there is a future you, a happy you, a you that makes a difference in the world and is doing alright. And that future you, if they’re anything like me, would love nothing more than to have a chance to talk to you right now just to let you know that it’ll turn out alright, but first you have to endure this. And yes, it will suck. But as there’s a future you wanting to telling you this, you know that you can do it.

There are no time machines but even if there were, there are far too many autistic children that never give themselves the chance to meet their future selves. Perhaps if they could have, they would have seen for themselves that if only they can endure this… it will be worth it.

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