The Surprising Benefits of Gaming for My Son on the Autism Spectrum
I can hear my autistic son at age 12 yelling at the computer screen. Once again he’s mad at his friends who are gaming with him. If there was one thing my son really struggled with at this age, it was taking things way too personally. I would get frustrated because trying to coach him when he was inflexible and non-logical was exhausting. He was gaming way too much by my standards — but shortly thereafter, something began to shift. I was hearing his friends on voice chat step up to help him find perspective. They could have banned him from the group but instead, they supported him, and so I reconsidered my thoughts about gaming.
Now my son is 21 and actually still plays with the same guys he met in junior high school. These are the guys who rile him up and help him come back down. They are the guys who inform him about girls and relationships, show him silly memes and help him feel less alone. About a year after high school, I noticed that he was taking on the role of coach. He was a good listener and hated conflict within the group. He would have one-on-one meetings with people in need and he would allow more room for others’ opinions and flaws. The social skills I could only teach in my small circle of activity were growing exponentially with his friends.
When he was 20, he got his autism diagnosis. He was so relieved to hear that his issues were neurological and not uncommon. The first thing he did when he got home was to announce this news to his friends so he could explain himself. I admire his willingness to be vulnerable. The best moment was when his friends all said the same thing, “We already knew that!” It really wasn’t a big surprise for us either, but having it in formal writing helps with accommodations and is an empowerment tool for him.
Another area of growth I have observed as a result of gaming is perseverance. I personally am not a fan of platforming games because I get so easily frustrated with the level of failure and I find the resulting reward is not enough to keep me engaged. However, for some kids, this is exactly what they need to learn that perseverance can have pay-offs. In my son’s case, he loves MMOs which means he’s up against bosses he has to defeat or he cannot go forward in the game. Sometimes he beats them on the first try, sometimes he has to repeat the battle, and sometimes he can get his friends to help him, which requires him to ask for help and collaborate with others. Either way, his determination grows and he’s rewarded for it. This has definitely helped him approach the real world with a better attitude about failure.
Also in keeping with the theme of failure and not giving up, gaming gives my son a place to see that failure is not catastrophic. For the bulk of his early childhood, he struggled with a “the sky is falling” mindset, but gaming has shown him that failure is not the end of the world and can make you stronger. He has also been able to find humor in failure by watching his favorite streamers who make fun of themselves, or by being silly with his friends and “dying” on purpose by killing their own characters.
Gaming has taught my son that gender does not matter. The girls are just as tough and capable as the boys, and players can choose any gender they want or even be nonbinary. As a result, my son is just as comfortable talking to girls as boys and has no preconceived ideology about females being weaker or any less of a quality player than males.
Group gaming also helps my son by lowering his social stress. By removing the social practice of eye contact, he is allowed to feel more comfortable and to focus just on listening and conversing. He can practice conversation skills such as turn-taking and conversations will most likely be centered around his favorite topics. Distractions, such as other people in the room, have been removed so he can focus better. Without being in the same space with another person, body language cues are not there to confuse him. The best part is that if it all gets to be too much, he can mute the conversation without hurting anyone’s feelings.
To this day, he meets with his friends daily and even has all-nighters with his BFF, just talking and not gaming. That “typical” behavior in a friendship makes my heart sing and because of it and all the growth I have seen, I will always support his gaming family.
Getty image by sakkmesterke.