Dad With Autism Creates Autcraft, a Safe Minecraft Server for Those on the Spectrum

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With over 8,200 members, Autcraft lets children and adults on the autism spectrum play Minecraft in a judgment- and troll-free space.

Read the full version of Dad With Autism Creates Autcraft, a Safe Minecraft Server for Those on the Spectrum.

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Autcraft Is a Safe Minecraft Server for Those on the Spectrum

In 2013, Stuart Duncan, a dad with autism, founded Autcraft.

Autcraft lets children and adults on the autism spectrum play Minecraft in a judgment- and troll-free space.

Today, Autcraft has more than 8,200 members.

Duncan noticed parents of children on the spectrum were looking for safe spaces where their children could play the game.

“Their children were being bullied on public servers because they behaved a little differently and were easily angered.” -Duncan, username AutismFather.

Users must submit an application to join and are required to follow a set of community rules.

“I feel very successful in what i’ve accomplished because i’ve seen children go from being shy and quiet to making friends…”

“And then off to making friends in the real world and finally to getting their first job.”

“The players are the community. It’s not just me or any other single person.”

“It’s everyone, and we’ve all grown to support and encourage and even celebrate each other.”

Duncan says he’d never leave the community behind and hopes to add more game types and servers.

“What I’d hope is simply to inspire other people to do as much as I have or more.”

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How My Dog Helped Me as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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I have always been an animal lover. When I was a kid, my parents couldn’t take a walk around the block without me petting every dog we encountered. I didn’t always remember people’s names, but I knew their animals.

In fifth grade, I started struggling a little bit. I was still undiagnosed as on the autism spectrum. To cope with the issues no one understood how to help me with, I focused even more on animals, and even tried to act like I was a dog. My peers played along at first, but as I grew older, they were less accepting.

Finally, on January 13, 2000, the best day of my childhood came. My parents broke down and adopted an English Shepherd dog for the family. We named her Sadie.

 

Sadie became my best friend. She got me out of the house when it was my turn to take her for walks. She helped me to become more social with others. Sadie gave me a reason to get up in the morning. More than that, she gave me unconditional love.

Once, someone asked me why I love animals so much. I knew exactly what to say. “People in life have let me down. Animals never have.”

It was as simple as that. Some of my peers had made fun of me. They would call me names or mock me, and it only got worse as I moved into middle and high school. However, Sadie was always there. Some days I would come home from school crying, but then I would see my best friend greeting me with her tail wagging and I’d forget about my problems for the moment.

I wouldn’t have made it through those years without her, and she passed away just days after my 23rd birthday.

My dog truly helped me. She never passed judgment. Sadie showed me how to connect with the world around me and provided unconditional love. She was definitely more than just a good dog, and she will always be my best friend forever.

Erin with her dog, Sadie.

Erin with her dog, Sadie.

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Feeding Tips for 'Picky' Eaters: Making Mealtime Less Stressful

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There are many reasons why a child may have difficulty with feeding, including delayed oral motor development, difficulties with visual motor skills, grasping skills, etc. These can affect skills involving using utensils, chewing and swallowing.

Some children have trouble eating due to sensory issues. Think of a time you went to the dentist and had Novocain. You probably didn’t feel like talking much, and drinking water from a cup or eating food probably was uncomfortable because you couldn’t feel anything. Although this is not exactly what it feels like for some kids, it’s comparable. For example, a child may not know how much of a bagel to bite off, or they may over-stuff and shovel food into their mouths. This may be because they don’t have a good sense of how much food they have in their mouth or where it is in their mouth. If a child is having trouble eating, cut their food up into small pieces and monitor how much they eat at a time. This can prevent over-stuffing and a choking incident.

Furthermore, some children have trouble with trying new foods because of taste or texture. They may crave extremely strong tasting foods such as sugary sweets or salty/sour/spicy foods. On the contrary, strong flavors may be very offensive to another and he/she may only stick to bland foods such as breads or pasta. Food with certain textures can also be intolerable for children with oral sensory sensitivities. Another common issue related to eating and children on the autism spectrum can be the need for “sameness.” This can cause extreme anxiety when the child is presented with new foods. Please know that unusual eating patterns and behaviors, as well as food aversions, can be a common trait of autism. As a parent, you should never feel guilty or place blame on yourself. You are doing the best you can and doing a great job! If you can introduce a healthy, nutritious option to your child’s meals, this is a great start. Please note that if you have serious concerns about your child’s eating habits, always consult with your pediatrician to rule out medical problems or consult with a dietitian/feeding therapist.

However, here are some practical everyday tips and ideas:

  • Try cutting food into similar shapes and sizes. Slice your child’s food into smaller pieces. You may even want to try Fun Bites, which is a food cutter that cuts food (grilled cheese sandwiches, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, fruits, veggies, quesadillas, pancakes, etc.) into bite-size pieces. It also makes food on the plate more neat and organized (which can be visually appealing for some children on the autism spectrum).
  • Introduce a visual schedule. Many children with autism tend to do best with clear routines. Use a written list and/or pictures to indicate the day’s mealtimes. Post this in the kitchen with a gentle reminder that mealtime is approaching.
  • Does your child crave sugar? If your child prefers a certain sugary cereal, try crushing a little bit to make a crumb powder and sprinkling on top of a healthier alternative such as an unsweetened oatmeal. This will provide the flavor of the food your child likes, while introducing a healthier option.  Also, a great replacement for cake and cookies is to bake a low-sugar version of banana, zucchini, or carrot bread. You can make these into muffins as well.
  • Experiment with textures and different flavors. A food aversion may be due to hypersensitivity to texture and the way the food feels inside the mouth (rather than the flavor). For each food your child refuses, try serving it a different way. Sometimes the way a food is cut or cooked can make a huge difference. For example, a child may not be able to tolerate the texture of a banana when it’s sliced, but be able to eat it whole (the outside texture of a banana is completely different than the more “slimy” inner part). You can also experiment with cooking veggies different ways. Roasting vs. sautéing vs. steaming vs. grilling can make the texture and taste of food completely different. A child may dislike steamed broccoli, but love it grilled or roasted. Another example is sweet potatoes. If you child will not eat them, try slicing thin, drizzling with oil and baking in the oven to make sweet potato fries. Serve with ketchup or their favorite dipping sauce (ranch, sweet and sour, etc). If your child gravitates to more strong flavored foods, maybe sprinkling Old Bay or Cajun seasoning over food may be a fun option. Get creative!
  • Change the environment. Try switching up your mealtime routine. Sometimes changing the experience of eating can help a child eat the food on their plate. Try having a “picnic” outside and eating on a blanket on the grass. Or, if you have a patio or deck, eat outside instead of at your usual kitchen table. Changing the environment may help make a difference.
  • Lemon zing! For children who refuse to drink anything other than sodas or juices, try introducing water with a squeeze of lemon/ lime. The strong, sour taste of the lemon may be enough to satisfy your child’s craving without the added unnatural sugar. Or, you can make lemon juice ice cubes to put in water. If your child is very oral seeking, pouring some juice into plain cold carbonated water may be a great way to provide the sensory input they’re craving.
  • Switch up the utensils. A mother once discovered that her children were more willing to try different foods if it was introduced to them on a toothpick! This realization eventually lead her to create PickEase, which is a safe, kid-friendly version of a tooth-pick. Trying this may help your child try different foods. Keep in mind that not all foods work with PickEase, however, if you think this is something that would appeal to your child, it’s worth giving it a try.
  • Try some movement before meals. Movement can be used to “wake up” a child’s body and senses. You may find that it helps to engage in some physical exercise before sitting down for a meal. Physical exercise can also help to decrease anxiety related to mealtime. Run outside, go to the playground, jump on the trampoline, etc.
  • Offer your child the same food that you’re eating, even if you think they’ll refuse it. As Temple Grandin once said, “You have to stretch these children just outside the comfort zone. You stretch just enough so they develop, but don’t go into meltdowns and problems.” Therefore, don’t stop introducing certain foods and always keep trying. The proximity of the food on their plate and the look/smell of it may help your child eventually progress to eating more foods in the near future.
  • Color the food. Did you know there are brands of food dye that are 100 percent natural and plant based? (for example red dye made solely from beets). Because some children on the autism spectrum have color preferences and will only eat foods of a certain color, adding their favorite color to a food they normally would never touch may be helpful. You can color white sauces, deviled eggs, waffles, pancakes, mashed potatoes, yogurt, omelettes or scrambled eggs using this natural food dye. Coloring food may sound extreme, but if the goal is to add variety to the diet of a child who will only eat foods that are “red,” this may be a way to introduce new foods.
  • Offer Choices. Try offering a variety of foods and allow choices within the nutrition categories. Sometimes anxiety related to mealtime can be alleviated by giving your child more control over what’s put on their plate. Offering choices, giving more control to your child and adding a variety of options during mealtime can really make a difference.
  • Be sneaky. If your child is extremely picky, you can always try “sneaking” veggies into other foods. For example, you’d be surprised how much baby spinach you can put into a yummy fruit smoothie without it being able to be detected or tasted! You can also try to put veggies into omelettes by chopping them up very finely and adding to eggs.

Other things to consider:

Is mealtime difficulty related to frustration using utensils?

-Remember, the purpose of a fork is to stab food. If the food isn’t thick or hard enough to pierce, a younger child shouldn’t be using a fork (or at least until they are old enough and have the appropriate fine motor coordination). Instead, give your child a spoon for foods such as rice, elbow macaroni, ground beef, etc.

-It’s easier to learn how to use a spoon when eating thicker foods. For example, applesauce, thick chowder, yogurt, and pudding are easy to learn from because they stick on the spoon. Liquid soup or milk/cereal are more difficult foods to learn how to use a spoon with.

-Give hand over hand assistance. If your child is having a hard time stabbing a piece of chicken with a fork, put your hand over theirs and physically guide and demonstrate for them. This can help him/her motor plan the motions needed to use utensils the right way. The visual feedback and demonstration is also very helpful.

-Proper seating. Stable positioning helps with feeding. Some children use abnormal patterns of movement while feeding themselves. Making sure their feet are planted firmly on the ground (knees at 90 degree angles) can really make a big difference.

Proper seating posture:

  • Head is upright and slightly forward.
  • Body is upright.
  • Arms are forward (and should be able to rest comfortably on the table).
  • Hips and knees are bent to a sitting position (90 degree angles).
  • Feet are resting flat on the floor.

Christina Kozlowski is an Occupational Therapist & Owner of Sensory TheraPLAY Box

sensory play box

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How Rock and Metal Music Helped Me as Someone With Autism

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Growing up with autism made me feel like an outsider — particularly when I didn’t understand why people were laughing, angry or upset. No matter what I did, what parts of my appearance I changed or what parts of my attitudes I changed, I never seemed to fit in with my classmates, friends or sometimes family.

Autism is often likened to being in a foreign country where you only understand very little of what they’re saying. That all changed for me when I put on some rock/metal music and stopped caring if I was different. The artists in question were Nickelback, Alice Cooper, Nightwish, Bon Jovi and Guns ‘N Roses. They provided an escapism when things got too much, it had a somewhat calming effect on me. It might sound strange but it actually was calming. It allowed me to switch off from the outside world in a powerful, yet calming way.

Fast forward to the present day, I have found a loving partner and a great group of friends who have the same interests. I’ve been a rock/metal music journalist for the last six to seven years and I have articles published on various websites and on my own blog. This interest in the heavier side of the spectrum has made me feel like a community more than ever before and has given me the opportunity to make friends, speak to strangers in a confident manner (for example meeting or calling band members for interviews) and allowed me to experience things out of my comfort zone. The music itself has a mellowing effect on my personal well-being, especially songs that remind me of certain events and certain people.

Even when there are moments when I’m overthinking the surroundings — such as if I’m standing the right way, constantly looking around feeling as if I’m being watched, feeling uncomfortable if the room is too crowded and if I’m saying the right thing about the right band — it was my stepping stone into a more active social life with amazing people who see me for who I am.

I am not ashamed of my autism, it’s part of who I am and I think it allows me to see things a little differently.

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What to Say When Your Friend's Child Is Diagnosed With Autism

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When a child is diagnosed with autism, it reminds me of a ripple, touching each person close to the child in a unique way — those nearest to the center (the child) are impacted the most, and the parents are close behind.

It’s as if everything changes in an instance and yet everything feels the same.

You can go back to your life pre-diagnosis and in many ways your life does settle down into a routine resembling life pre-diagnosis, but it’s different — for some ever so slightly, and for others it can be quite different.

I admit for me it came with mixed emotions, none right or wrong. We were relieved when we got the “official” diagnosis — ASD, level 2 with global development delay — but that doesn’t meant we didn’t feel a plethora of emotions.

It feels as if moments in your life could be categorized into two classifications: pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis. For me, it was not hard to think of the past, the time “before.” That was easy and required little effort. I could have looked back  and nitpick our past, choosing to stay stuck, or I could figure out what the new “every day” would look like.

If your friend’s child receives a diagnosis of ASD, no matter the diagnosis level — level 1, minimal support; level 2, substantial support; level 3, extensive support — it is possible they will feel as if the doctors handed them a burlap sack of emotions.

“Whenever you feel like it, just reach in and pull out an emotion,” the doctor said. “It’s the adult version of grab bag. Fun, right? And here’s half a tree of pamphlets and brochures to help you figure out what to do next.”

My husband and I were fortunate, my mommy gut had been telling me for a while there was more than just “second child syndrome.” So when it came to us, we felt relieved and happy to have a diagnosis. Yes, I mean that, we felt happy — at least I was, and still am. A diagnosis can open doors that are otherwise hard to budge, especially when it comes to certain therapies such as ABA.

My husband lets me do most of the talking about autism, he knows I’m a communicator. That doesn’t mean my husband doesn’t put his two cents about our son J’s care, he just doesn’t need to talk about it like I do. We all deal with things differently and we respect each other enough to accept those differences.

He said to me on the day J was diagnosed, holding my hand and looking into my eyes, “Well, now we have the diagnosis to get him the help he needs, but you know he’s still our boy.”

That was all I needed from him to assure me it was all going to be OK, because the journey we were embarking on could be, and still is, overwhelming.

My love language is affirmation, and that was plenty to remind me we were in this together to find and provide the best therapies for our boy and our two other wonderful kids, if they need some extra help, too.

So what can you do when your friend’s child is diagnosed? How can you hold space for your friend, especially if you don’t know their primary love language? I mean, I think I can figure out my closest friends’ love languages but what about the mom in the grocery store or that old friend from high school that’s now a dad to a child on the autism spectrum?

I don’t have definite answers, as nothing is ever black or white, but I do have a few things for you to consider, especially if you don’t have anyone close to you who has a disability.

1. At the end of the day your friend’s child is just a child, a kid who might be obsessed with lining up trains by color or who will only eat chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs. No matter the diagnosis, remember that child has not changed from who they were before the diagnosis. They might not yet be aware they are different in some way. They might like the same things your kid does, so treat the child exactly as you did pre-diagnosis.

2. With that said, remember we all have “quirks” and we all could use a little more compassion. For example, if you don’t like it when your food touches or the sound of a loud chewer, try picturing those sensory issues magnified.

Imagine a cup, an average size teacup — this teacup represents the amount of stimuli your central nervous system can handle in a day. Now let’s start your day. You wake up and check your phone. Pour some tea in your sensory teacup for the light on your phone, and the videos and pictures on Facebook you watch and scroll through.

Next, you put down your phone and take a shower — pour some more tea for the water and the scent of your zesty tangerine and ginseng body soap.

You’re all clean and ready to tackle the day, so you step out, dry off and go to the closet. You find something to wear but the tag on the back is a bit scratchy — pour some tea.

You slip on socks that feel a bit tight around the ankle, your shoes are worn down, making your feet uncomfortable and you haven’t even left the house. Yup, pour some more tea. You go to the bathroom to fix your hair, brush your teeth, apply deodorant — pour, pour, pour. By now, your teacup is getting pretty full. So what do you do? You do nothing, really, because it’s second nature. You take your shirt half off and cut out the itchy tag, you make yourself some coffee and grab a bagel, check the weather and traffic, you put up with the socks and shoes but decide to go shopping for new shoes this weekend. You go about your day. You are able to lower the stimuli threshold without thinking about it.

For a child with a sensory processing disorder and/or autism, their teacup for stimuli is much smaller. Imagine those little teacup sets at the toy store for kids. Now think about how many times in just one morning you had to pour tea into your sensory cup. At this rate, the child’s cup is overflowing. Just those things alone can be too much stimuli on any given day.

This is just the example of one child, but I hope it paints a picture of what it’s like when our nervous system is wired differently. So how do they handle the overflow that you so easily thwarted? Their nervous system reacts differently, so they might resort to stimming (self-stimulation) by humming, rocking, jumping (all things our J does). They might go hide under a blanket or feel upset. The child could do other things to try to deal with their over-stimulated nervous system. The point is, their threshold might be much lower. So before you judge the women with the loud child humming in the store, or the kid who is running in circles at the playground with no regard of his surroundings, be kind. Smile and nod at the parents. If the child gets away from the parents or has a meltdown, ask how you can help. They might say nothing, feel embarrassed and leave, but it lets them know you aren’t judging their parenting. Believe me, if you think people judge you with a child without any delays of any kind, judgement seems to take on a whole other level with a child with a disability.

3. For any level of friendship, ask sincere questions. Ask what the diagnosis means. Don’t be afraid if you don’t know what they are talking about, chances are, since their child just received a diagnosis, they are also learning.

Ask, “How do you feel now that you have a diagnosis?” “What’s the therapy plan?” “What does autism mean for your kid?” Because you probably won’t meet two people who have autism (or not) with the same issues. And if you sense your friend is in an uneasy place about the diagnosis, tell them you are holding space for them and they can come to you to talk with no judgement (offer this only if you truly mean it) and you can help out in any way they need. Offer to pick up their groceries if their kid is having a bad day and they can’t leave the house. Take their dog to the vet for them. If the parents and the child feel comfortable enough with you, watch the kid for a few hours so the parents can have a date night.

So what about old Facebook friends, acquaintances? You don’t know them or their kid well but you want to offer support. You can ask the same questions and tell them they are amazing parents because they will need to hear it — often. This world might make them question many things, so any form of sincere encouragement will probably be appreciated.

And please don’t say the following, even if you have the best intentions.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Do you think vaccines caused it?”

“Will they have to be institutionalized?”

Just be kind and open-minded. You don’t have to say anything or offer anything, you can offer support by liking a status or pictures of their wonderful child with autism. Just being seen and heard can be enough. Don’t disappear if you are remotely close. It’s OK to admit you don’t know what to say, but you still want to make it known you are here for them. They will appreciate the honesty because people will be feeding them “cures” for something that doesn’t need a cure but rather more understanding and awareness.

I, like other parents of kids on the autism spectrum, have to remember people don’t know what to say half the time because they don’t have any experience with autism. Or if they do, it might be very different from what your child is going through. I can’t be mad at someone for their questions if they have no idea what autism is, because it is hard to define.

We will do our best to provide everything J needs to thrive and become a decent human being, a well-rounded citizen in society pursuing his passions in life, but ultimately, only he will know what it means to be autistic. My husband and I are just the lucky ones who get to savor and celebrate all his victories, no matter how big or small. Like him saying the word, “delicious.” That’s a hard word for anyone to say, really, and here our J said it mimicking his older brother who had just said it about the chocolate chip cookies we made.

I’m no expert, if there is such a thing. These are merely suggestions, but I will say this strongly — don’t disappear. If you talk on a regular basis, keep that up. If you meet once a month for coffee, keep it going. Now is not the time to flea, your friend needs you. You might not think you have much to offer, but you do. I believe God put you in their life for a reason. You might not be able to see each other as much because of the child’s new therapy routine, but check in. Don’t evaporate. They need your friendship. They need you. Always.

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What It Means to Be a Mom to My Autistic Son

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As I take a moment to reflect on my life as a mother and the little boy who gave me that title, I find that Leo’s exceptional uniqueness parallels just how vastly different each one of our journeys is.

For me, being Leo’s Mommy means embracing a new normal and experiencing life through the beauty of his lens.

It means viewing the Toy Story movies, Sesame Street, and each one of Leo’s cherished films countless times, and memorizing their scripts alongside my boy.

It means buying chicken nuggets and “Easy Mac” in bulk, and having a little man who loves chocolate chip cookies as much as his mommy.

It means “I love you’s” expressed primarily through unspoken words.

It means never leaving the house without a chewy tube and being ready for other sensory input, like light scratches, squeezes, jumping, spinning and being upside down.

It means basking in Leo’s joyful exuberance.

It means our calendar is outlined with appointments with doctors, specialists and therapy sessions.

It means celebrating each success, no matter how “small,” and understanding progress of any kind is significant.

It means tickles and giggles and love void of judgement.

It means a life overflowing with cherished moments.

And it means believing without hesitation that Leo was always destined to be my boy, and I his mommy — and thanking the universe each day for that extraordinary gift.

Follow this journey at Life With Leo

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