The day I met 16-year-old gamer Jordan Collard-Mendoza, he was so excited by the delivery of his Halloween costume, he could barely speak. Instead, he ripped open the box and pulled out a full-cover mask of Sans from Undertale, a cult-favorite indie RPG. For the next few minutes, Jordan talked to me with the mask on, his voice muffled as he answered my questions. Throughout our conversation, he interrupted himself to hum Undertale’s “Megalovania Song.”
Jordan is not just a gamer, he is also autistic. Autism, diagnosed in 1 percent of the global population, is a neurological difference affecting a person’s ability to communicate and socialize. It is also characterized by sensory issues, as well as repetitive or restrictive behaviors. Jordan, for example, fixates on topics that interest him, like Undertale, or his other favorite game, Minecraft. He also struggles to communicate in real world settings.
As a young adult on the spectrum, Jordan’s interest in video games is not unusual. My son, who was diagnosed at age 10, also loves video games. In fact, studies suggest that autistic adolescents spend more than 40 percent of their free time gaming, as compared to 18 percent of their neurotypical peers.
While each autistic individual is unique, autism is a spectrum difference, which means it shares a full range of common issues in terms of characteristics, obstacles, and talents. Researchers at the University of Missouri who studied the perspective of autistic gamers between 17 and 25 years of age have identified some characteristics of video games that are particularly appealing to the autistic mindset. Here’s what they found:
1. Games offer visually-stimulating virtual environments. Many autistic people demonstrate strengths in visual-spatial reasoning and pattern recognition, attention to visual detail, and a preference for visually-based information. Because games require attention to visual cues and good spatial skills, they are inherently rewarding to people with such strengths.
2. Games are highly imaginative, but with a well-defined structure. Study participants expressed a strong affinity for RPG and action-adventure games, which appeal to a desire for fantasy without requiring the self-generated imaginative skills that many with autism find difficult.
3. Video games provide clear visual and auditory clues. People on the spectrum often value rules and objective assessment more than their neurotypical peers. Understanding and working within clearly-defined rules can be essential to avoid anxiety and sensory meltdowns.
4. Video games give clearly-defined expectations and repetitive reinforcement. Autistic people have a strong preference for routine and repetition. Undefined situations often increase their anxiety, making them uncomfortable and looking for a means of escape. Video games offer a safe space with defined parameters in which to practice and master new skills.
5. Games are more predictable and controllable than the real world. Unpredictable human behavior is especially challenging for autistic people. Understanding social cues, idioms, humor, sarcasm, and satire can also cause anxiety in real-world settings. Within a game that becomes more familiar each time he plays it, an autistic gamer can navigate these challenges in a safe, controllable setting.
When it comes to children on the spectrum, parents and educators often worry that they are spending too much time gaming, as opposed to spending time with friends IRL. Countless studies have debated the issue, but there are clear benefits to gaming that can counterbalance any negatives, if encouraged and monitored.
Most autistic people struggle with loneliness and a sense of isolation. “I’m an introvert,” Jordan told me. “I don’t really have any friends besides the ones online playing video games. ”But in a 2017 study conducted at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, researchers studying the issue of poor friendships and loneliness in autistic adolescents and adults found that those who played online games have more friends than those who do not. “I struggle to make friends,” Peter Lantz, another autistic gamer told me. “But autistic people can be pretty interesting and are often intelligent. You may have met some and didn’t realize they were autistic. Underneath the quirkiness and oddness that is autism, you can find some genuine interests and thoughts that might surprise you.”
Therapists who work with nonverbal kids on the autism spectrum often tap into their love of video games to explore alternative means of communications. Jordan struggles to talk with his neurotypical peers in high school, but he is motivated to speak up online with others who share his passion for gaming. He even takes an acting class at school, hoping it will prepare him to become an influencer on YouTube someday. Peter also pushes himself to talk about things he’s passionate about. “I tend to disappear in group settings since most people interrupt me a lot,” Peter said. “I’m slower to react to openings in conversations and am not the most assertive talker. It’s something I simply accept.”
Sadly, an estimated 85 percent of autistic college graduates are unemployed. Since their intellectual abilities can range as widely as their neurotypical peers, this staggering statistic is not the result of ability, but rather opportunity, misconception, and communication difficulties. Companies like Microsoft, SAP, and Ford Motor Company are championing efforts to increase employment in the autistic community with specific hiring programs, but the fact remains: most adults on the spectrum will have to find their own employment in a world that doesn’t understand them. But an interest in gaming can spur some to pursue a dream job. Peter’s love of video games led him to a career as an in-house indie gaming developer for the Michigan-based Daniel Brian Advertising Agency, where he is currently working on a 3D platformer game called Castle on the Coast. “I played a lot of Nintendo games, so I grew up with quality stuff,” Peter said. “I was obsessed with games and bursting with ideas. My hands were constantly looking for ways to build them.”
Peter first began developing games in Microsoft Word, simply because it was all he had access to. Eventually, two friends showed him GameMaker, which he used to code for the first time. “I started building games more than I played them,” Peter said. “I was also introduced to Roblox before it became a meme. I loved how you could create worlds out of resizable bricks, essentially making your own game with little experience.”
Peter credits Roblox with preparing him for 3D modeling and level design. “It got me drawing out floorplans and blueprints. Roblox was the most educational game I’d ever played, and I wasn’t even trying to be educational.”
Ultimately, Peter went on to college, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in digital animation and game design. He also volunteered at a game developer conference all four years of college.
Dr. Anthony Ellertson, director of the Games, Interactive Media, and Mobile (GIMM) technology program at Boise State University, agrees that a passion for gaming might inspire any student toward programs like GIMM. “I definitely can see that as being an avenue toward learning,” he said. “Education’s an archetypal experience. Human beings go through initiation and – we use game metaphors – then quests to really understand themselves. To me, that’s the purpose of an education. To understand yourself.”
Adapting to the neurotypical world can be challenging for adults on the spectrum – especially since most services and support for autism are only available for children. By asking autistic adults what they love about gaming, researchers hope to inspire developers to create useful tools in the form of games, apps, and programs that are appealing to gamers on the spectrum. Support of this kind is sadly lacking. Ellertson hopes more support for autistic adults can ultimately be found in virtual and augmented reality technologies, an industry that Goldman Sachs projects to be worth more than $80 billion by 2025.
“Two thirds of that $80 billion will be in non-entertainment VR and AR,” Ellertson said. His GIMM students work in an apprenticeship-style program at Boise State, developing such VR and AR games and apps. “We create games that essentially have a social purpose behind them. Games that have a strong learning element. It’s about how we harness that to educate someone about a real issue that has to be tackled in our community.”
One app that GIMM recently completed is a virtual reality walk through of the Boise Airport, designed to give children with autism a chance to practice airport and TSA procedures before traveling. “My own son is on the spectrum,” Ellertson said. “So, I understand how, with autism, it’s often about understanding the rules of the environment.”
With Microsoft HoloLens, and, eventually, more wearable AR glasses rumored to be in production by Apple, Ellertson sees apps and games developing in the future to help not just members of the autism community, but any number of needs.
“The smart thing to do is create something foundational that you can spin a number of things off of. You try to be good at understanding the interconnections. You see that someone needs this and think, ‘By gosh, I can make this work for them.’”
With autism, most milestones are achieved one hard-fought inch at a time. As with any minority group, autistic people often survive and thrive by being persistent and courageous in the face of constant obstacles. I saw my son’s love of gaming lead him to a career in 3D architectural drafting. Jordan will continue to play Minecraft and watch Undertale comic dubs on YouTube, hoping to make his own channel a success someday. In the meantime, he’s learning to communicate with others at school – practicing a skill that will carry him into the next phase of his life, no matter what it might be. None of that would have happened if he didn’t love gaming.
Peter once heard that game developers don’t have time to play anymore. “I haven’t found that to be the case,” he said. “In fact, if I didn’t play, I wouldn’t get as many ideas, or learn what works and what doesn’t.” Instead, his love for gaming keeps him in a constant state of daydreaming. “I think that aspect of my personality is definitely autistic, and I have learned to embrace it.”
Jennifer Froelich is a content author with Crucial, a brand of Micron. After earning a degree in journalism from Arizona State University, she spent several years ghostwriting and editing for an eclectic mix of clients. A lover of books, Sun Devil football, and all varieties of red candy, Jennifer is also an author of fiction for adults and young adults. Find her on Twitter @jenfroelich.