For parents of children with autism, it has long been a difficult task helping them connect and learn on their own. By the very definition, children who fall on the spectrum of autism often have trouble interacting socially, communicating with their peers and friends, and having confidence in themselves.
Because of these social disconnects, it can be a hard task finding a “safe place” for autistic children to learn and express themselves, without the fear of bullying, or ridicule.
It was this dilemma that spoke to Stuart Duncan, a man from Canada who has two children with autism.
Within the online autism support community that he was a member of, he noticed that a sizeable number of both the parents and the young adult members were having a tough time finding an online space that was safe and free from bullies, a place where they could communicate and express themselves without exposure to trolls, foul language or other confronting stimuli. Duncan then thought immediately of Minecraft.
Minecraft is an online video game that allows the user to build worlds using 3D cubes, explore, fight monsters and interact with people all over the world. But unlike other online world-building games, Minecraft allows people to create private online servers that have restricted access.
At that time, Duncan had already been playing Minecraft with his children for a while, and had seen the benefits first hand. So, for $2.50, Duncan registered a private server in Minecraft and called it Autcraft, thinking that it would be a small autism-friendly community for his sons and a few other community members. He posted it on the community’s Facebook page and sent out invitations to 400 people, not expecting a lot of responses.
But within two days, Duncan was inundated with requests and emails to join Autcraft.
“I got 750 emails in the first two days,” Duncan told BuzzFeed News. “These parents, they really really felt they had no place to go and here was a place where they thought: my kid won’t be bullied. I didn’t have to do any ads; they were desperate.”
And not only was Autcraft a strict ‘no bullying’ zone, but the very nature of the game itself was perfectly conducive to help children with autism build and learn. Players were allowed to explore, build and create, all the while building social skills like teamwork and communication – but within the safety of their own comfort zones, and for the parents of autistic children, it was a gateway to communication and bonding.
“When you have a lot of insecurities, face-to-face communication can be very limiting,” said Duncan, “Whereas in Minecraft, you don’t feel like you’re talking to a human being, but you have fun and you let your guard down.”
And since the game began to grow, hundreds of parents and young adults have written in to praise its therapeutic nature.
“We began to notice our son was gaining confidence in his typing and spelling,” said the parents of a boy with Asperger’s, “We saw his reading improve and we saw him become more and more willing to chat with other players and carry on conversations, something that was very hard for him. We also watched him build relationships with certain players. There is one player in particular that he loves to play with and asks about often. For our son this is a big deal.”
“My 10 and 7 year old son's began playing Autcraft soon after its creation. Prior to Autcraft I had struggled to find a common interest for my boys that would prevent them arguing. I so desperately wanted to see them get along, but due to their differences, was beginning to give up hope,” said another mother of two boys with autism, “Over the first few weeks of playing Autcraft, I began to see a dramatic improvement in their ability to get along with each other, and now, several months later, they are best friends!”
“Being a girl with Asperger’s, you might feel lonely. Having anxiety towards other children can be devastating. And here comes Autcraft, from the other side of the world, and suddenly you're part of something bigger. Suddenly you feel worthy,” wrote a mother of a young girl.
From the testimonials on the site, it was clear that Autcraft was having a tangible and positive effect children’s growth and learning.
“We’ve heard from parents whose children’s therapists have been shocked with how much progress they’ve made and they’re like, ‘What are you doing different?’ and the parents say, ‘Autcraft’,” Duncan says. “These kids have more self-confidence, their reading and writing has improved greatly and, for the first time, they are making friends.”
Part of this development has been made possible because the players are able to engage without the fear of bullying. But keeping Autcraft safe and bully-free hasn’t been an easy task. Duncan and a group of other volunteer parents and support members donate hundreds of hours in order to act as ‘admin’. The admin are in charge of both vetting new members, to make sure no ‘trolls’ or bullies get through to the server, and playing in the game itself to help communication and counsel the players.
“Pretty much every admin has described it as the most stressful job they’ve ever had,” said Duncan, who has recently stepped away from full-time admin duties, “I had to tell my kids, ‘I can’t play now because some child wants to commit suicide and I have to go talk to him.’ Up until I stepped away I was on there pretty much any time I was awake. I did 24/7 for a year and a half, even Christmas and Easter; I’d have Skype on my phone. I was always there.”
The volunteers also act as counsellors, and ‘law enforcement’, stepping in when disputes or 'flare-ups' occur over things such as stealing, bad language or arguments.
“It’s not always smooth,” said Duncan, “but it’s also the most rewarding job, so long as you keep telling them they’re safe and there’s a huge sense of reward. They feel happier with you than anywhere else because they feel that they’re going to be taken care of.”
Yet, thanks to Duncan and his team of admins, the Autcraft community has grown to over 6,000 members, from all points on the autism spectrum.
The size of the Autcraft community has meant that the children and young adults who play are able to connect to other with similar interests all over the world.
“When you have a kid with autism and they like something they will talk to you until you, as a parent, need to talk about something different and you can kind of shut them down,” Duncan said, “But on the server all the kids know that and never, ever shut each other down. A kid will say, ‘That’s amazing — you know all this about trees’ or some other subject. Having such a big community, there’s at least one other person who shares that interest and they go off and build together.”
But although the community and the serve of Autcraft has helped thousands of children and young adults with communication and social interaction, creator Duncan told news.com.au he’s sad that he needed to create a “safe haven” from bullying.
“I wish I never had to start it — I wish nobody needed it because the bullying was so bad,” he says. “I’m glad it’s been successful and helped so many people but at the same time, it’s such a tragedy.”
Autcraft is powered by small donations by members and volunteer staff, if you would like to donate or volunteer, please visit the Autcraft site.