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.
1. 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.
4. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
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.