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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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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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The most important lesson that I had to teach to the adults just as much as the children

Communication UnderstandingDuring my time running Autcraft, I found myself constantly teaching people things. I taught children how to work together, how to be a friend, how to play the game, how to deal with bullies and so much more. I also found myself teaching adults as well. How to play the game mostly but also how to cope with troubling behaviours, how to extend their patience level and even how to switch a system which focuses on punishments to one that focuses on positive reinforcement.

The biggest thing though, the number one thing that I found myself constantly having to teach, reteach, remind and reinforce over and over and over again was, what I feel, the number one single most determining factor in the success of the server… communication.

When a player (child or adult) did something wrong such as swear, lash out, destroy someone’s property or quite literally anything else, it was my job to talk to them. Communicate.

I needed to find out why they did what they did, what they were thinking in doing it, what they hoped to accomplish and if they understood why it wasn’t ok. I had to explain why it’s not allowed and how it affects others around them. I had to reach an understanding. Communication.

Time and time again though, I’d have to remind the adults on the server of the same thing. The parents, the autistic adults, the SrHelpers and even the other admins. When patience levels would dwindle, when a behaviour became a repetitive situation… the desire to even try and communicate would grow less and less. But it was always crucial. It was always imperative.

Only through understanding the motives, the thought process and the intentions would we truly be able to understand the person and only then could we explain why it was wrong, or misguided or not appropriate.

Nine times out of ten, once we could see from their point of view, we could understand how they came to behave in the way that they did. And when that happens, a mutual respect is achieved. A bond is formed. You get them, they get you and they feel more comfortable with you as you actually take the time to “get them.”

This offers benefits for both parties. The person trusts you more and is more inclined to open up to you and come to you next time as they’re no longer afraid that they’ll just get in trouble and they know that you’ll take the time to understand them next time too and likewise, you yourself gain greater insight into why people do what they do, you learn to put aside your judgments and assumptions and you learn to keep calm and use your kindness and compassion to get to the truth.

Most problems I encountered were built on a foundation of assumptions, jumping to conclusions or simply not taking the time to understand, or worse, not caring too.

As people learned to take the time to talk, not just talk but to communication with the intention of understanding, everything just ran better and better. Players played together better. Staff managed the place better. Players felt more comfortable and open to approaching us.

Above all else, communicate. Take the time to understand. It’s not just a lesson for the children, it’s not just a lesson for the players, it’s also a lesson that many adults, parents and even the staff have had to learn… myself including. It’s also not just something you learn but something you get better at over time.

If you can take the time to do this, and keep doing it, all other pieces just fall into place.

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10 things I’ve learned from running a Minecraft server for children with autism

It wasn’t that long ago that I registered a domain name, opened up a shiny new Facebook page and Twitter account and announced to the world that I had started a Minecraft server just for children with autism and their families. Now, one year later, I can honestly say that I’ve changed a lot. I’ve changed because I’ve learned a lot. Some of it good, some of it not so much.

This is what I’ve learned in 1 year of running a Minecraft server for children with autism.

Bullying1. Bullying is far worse than anyone realizes

In one year, Autcraft‘s list of approved players (whitelist) is now over 4300. From a very humble Facebook post to a few hundred people, word spread like wildfire. This happened because parents had finally found a place for their children to play where they wouldn’t be bullied.

It’s not just the quantity but also the quality. Most kids are used to the hitting, kicking and teasing. On Minecraft servers, the bullying usually involves killing them, destroying their stuff and stealing everything they have to the point of making the game unplayable.

The worst though, is that these kids, some as young as 5 or 6, are told that they should be killed or never have been born because they are dragging down the human race. They’re told they’re less than worthless, they’re a burden on everyone, even their own parents. They’re told that, if they care about people, if they care about their parents, they should commit suicide.

Next time someone talks to you about having autism and being bullied, don’t respond with “well, everyone is bullied” because there is no comparison.

2. Being autistic makes you a target

Three weeks after opening our doors, Autcraft became the topic of several troll/hacker forums including the infamous 4chan website. A victim of our own success, these places heard of us quickly and immediately determined we’d be an “easy target” to “make a bunch of autistic kids cry.”

Since then, we receive applications from troll/hacker groups at least 2-3 times a month and our server is DDOS attacked at least once a week.

3. Autistic is to ‘retard’ as Autcraft is to…

People are using ‘autistic’ in the place of ‘retard’ in their lame attempts at insulting others but I didn’t realize just how much until I started finding Autcraft being used as the insult across the Minecraft community. For example, when two people are insulting each other, one would suggest that the other belongs on, or should go back to, Autcraft.

If we aren’t targeted for attack, we’re used as an attack on others.

calm down4. Autistic children are mastering a technique that most people lack

I have seen many autistic children on our server get so mad that others can’t help but change ‘rage’ from a noun to a verb. “He’s raging.” When a child with autism gets to that point, there is very little self control. The worst of the worst behavior that they are capable of can and often does present itself.

However, many of these children, most even, have this remarkable ability to stop, recognize this is happening and remove themself from the situation and return after calming down.

I can only assume that this is due to the very hard and diligent work of their parents and care givers (and even some handy apps) but this is something I am witness to very often and always amazed by. While most people don’t ‘rage’ quite as extremely as some of these autistic children do, they still prolong the issue and hold grudges for far longer than they probably should.

A secondary benefit to this is that they are able to recognize this in other autistic children as well and often come to quick resolutions after apologizing and forgiving each other upon the child’s return from calming down.

5. The kindest community in all of Minecraft

Ok, that’s a bit of a bold statement to make and I can’t really confirm it since I haven’t been on every server but I can tell you that every guest we’ve had from YouTube celebrities, Minecraft news sites, other server owners, teachers and more have all told me that they received the biggest and kindest welcome when they joined Autcraft and continued to experience the friendliest atmosphere they’ve ever had while child after child offers to give them tours, help them find a place to build, help them build, give them advice and even just offering to be their friends.

This is surprising to most people as they assume a community comprised of socially awkward or special needs children couldn’t possibly be that well natured… that friendly. But it is. It really is.

Equality vs Equity6. Equality vs fairness

One of the most famous quotes in the autism community is “If you’ve met one autistic, you’ve met one autistic” which is another way of saying, each autistic is different with different characteristics, symptoms of autism, personalities, strengths and weaknesses.

On other Minecraft servers, rules are set in stone and everyone that visits that server must abide them. With Autcraft, while we do have a set list of rules, each child is essentially treated quite differently.

While this sometimes leads to some being upset that “it’s not fair” that two children are not treated equal, I have found that for 2 very different children to learn a new task, complete a task and have an equal experience, it is imperative that those two children not be treated equally in the beginning.

You treat them fairly, based on their strengths and weaknesses such that both children have an equal opportunity and that’s when everyone does well.

Positive Reinforcement7. Encouragement vs Discouragement

When children do bad things on a Minecraft server, the instinct is to jail or ban them. When they say bad things, they are muted.

On Autcraft, these things happen very rarely despite the fact that many of the players are children that have more communication impairments, less emotional control and more learned negative behaviours than even their own parents may realize.

The reason these punishments happen so rarely is quite simple: we encourage them to do better.

We reward players that show great improvement from Sunday to Sunday with Player of the Week. We take the players that show respect, maturity and a need to be a helpful contributor to the community and reward them with the added responsibility of being a Helper.

We offer many great rewards for players who simply do their best or make improvements over how they were previously.

Children want your attention. You can either wait for them to do something wrong to get it or give them opportunities to make you proud.

Communication is key8. Communication is key

When a player does act out, rather than mute or jail them, we ask them if they’re OK.

Nine times out of ten, we’re told about something happening in their life that is troubling them. We talk about it and they either feel better or don’t but the ‘acting out’ stops.

Communication is not limited to talking. For some we contact the parents with something their child did or said, sometimes it’s with concerns about how they’re feeling and sometimes it’s to tell them about the really great thing their child did.

Sometimes we have children on that are very young or unable to read/write the chat, in which case we set up a system with the parent such that if we move their child to a special room, that’s their cue to get mom or dad so that we can relay information to them, they tell their child and then they continue on playing.

Open communication, in what ever form we can achieve it, at all times, makes the whole experience better for everyone.

Be Yourself9. Progress is made when you’re free to be yourself

We’ve received so many emails from parents saying that their children are making better progress now than with years of therapy. Others are making friends for the first time ever. Some are learning to read and write when it seemed nearly impossible before.

I believe that the reason for this is simple: the children are unafraid to just be themselves.

When you remove the fear of bullying, embarrassment and the shackles of self-doubt, these children open up and do the things they love. They do it in the open and for all to see and others rejoice in it and encourage that. That’s when real progress is made.

They’re no longer afraid to spell something wrong, they’re no longer afraid to admit they like something they feel like maybe someone else would think they shouldn’t, they’re no longer afraid to speak up and say what is on their mind.

This is when real education happens. This is where real power comes from.  This is how real progress is made.

respect10. Respect

Many of these children are fighting battles that most people can’t imagine. For some it’s constant bullying while others have unaccepting parents. For some it’s not having any friends or the struggles that come with being unable to communicate effectively or it’s the blinding rage that seems to bubble up all too often despite their best efforts or maybe it’s other things like also having ADHD, Tourettes, seizures or any other number of other disorders or problems.

When I talk to many of these children, they are going through more battles than most adults would be capable of handling. We often joke that life was so much easier as a child than as an adult but for many of these kids, that simply is not true.

Talk to them with respect, make your best efforts to listen and to understand and never dismiss their struggles.

They will respect you when you respect them and that’s when you’ll have an opportunity to truly help each other.

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