Gaming And Autism

It was the summer of 2002. I was enjoying my hiatus from tirelessly writing for RPGFan, and playing video games in general. It was also my second year working as a counselor at a local summer camp.

One week each summer, the camp's staff was faced with a challenge very different from other weeks. Instead of taking care of kids, we would take care of mentally disabled adults: anywhere from ages 20 to 70. Some had mild handicaps, others were more severe. Most campers had been coming for years, even decades; they knew the grounds and the schedule better than most of the staff. These "veterans" of the camp didn't pose a problem, but the new campers required major adjustments from us and from them.

Jeremy* was a new camper (age 21) assigned to my cabin. His guardian provided us with no information on him, making his transition extremely difficult. At first, all we knew is that he had severe autism and was also diagnosed with mild mental retardation. With some phone calls and some first-hand experience, we picked up some more information after the first 48 hours: he had hyper-sensitive hearing and thus couldn't stand loud noises, and he could say "yes" and "no," but would ignore people that he didn't know or trust. Jeremy was an enigma. A big, scary bear of an enigma. At 6'4" and well over 200 lbs., he could knock anyone down with his sporadic arm motions. Indeed, Jeremy left me with a few marks and bruises since I didn't know how to communicate with him.

Wednesday, after a hectic lake-time (Jeremy did not want to leave), I was walking back with Jeremy. He was grabbing my arm, pulling me in this or that direction. I had no idea what he was doing at the time, but hindsight tells me that he was merely trying to get my attention. And that's when I heard it: Jeremy spoke. He said "Yu...naaaa." I looked him right in the eyes and asked, "what did you say?" His reply: "Waaaa...kaa." I had only read about Final Fantasy X at the time, but I knew who all the characters were. At the mention of the name Auron, Jeremy's eyes lit up. We'd made a connection. He named all the characters: Kimahri, Lulu, Rikku, Tidus, the whole lot. And that was all before dinner. The rest of the week was spent naming names and singing theme songs for popular games (mostly RPGs) and cartoons. Jeremy loved the theme song to Captain Planet.

I knew I'd see Jeremy again the next year, so I was sure to brush up on my Final Fantasy X. This made it even easier for me to relate with him. I saw him every summer from then on. Even after getting married and finding a real job, I would still come visit for this particular week each summer to see how everyone (and, in particular, Jeremy) was doing.

It was only a few weeks ago that I last saw Jeremy. His cabin's counselor was a friend of mine, and a casual gamer. He (the counselor) had a CD-R with some of his favorite songs, ranging from 90s techno-dance-pop to the theme song for Kingdom Hearts II. When Jeremy heard the first few seconds of "Sanctuary," his eyes lit up again. I knew what we were in for. We listed all the characters, including the massive canon of Disney names that appear. It went beyond that, then. Even when I tried to change the subject to other games, Jeremy was hooked on Kingdom Hearts. He sang the parts of "Sanctuary" that he knew, and then he started quoting lines from the game, from the beginning all the way to the end. It was clear that he had completed the game on his own (a fact I later confirmed with his caretakers). It was impressive just how much he remembered from the game. We were talking about keys opening the door to light, King Mickey and his subjects, the heartless, the nobodies, "make it pink" "make it blue," all kinds of classic quotes. I bet Jeremy remembered more about the game than I did. He was quoting, word-for-word, whole five-minute scenes of dialogue. For us, this was progress. I'd heard him quote lines on occasion in years past, but now it was like he was replaying the entire event in his mind.

I wanted to see if I could take things one step further. Sure, he could memorize lines from the game, but what about real role-playing? I crouched down and said, "Look out Sora, a heartless is coming to get you!" Then I started moving my arms around like a Heartless (or, really, more like a Putty from the Power Rangers) and danced from side to side, blocking him from walking past me. After a few seconds, Jeremy yelled in his slow, slurred speech "I will get you!" And charged at me with an imaginary keyblade in his hands. He swung at me, but I dodged the hit. We ran around the woods for a few minutes like this, until finally I lost the battle and fell over. I'd never seen Jeremy so happy in my life. When he gets excited, sometimes he puts his hands over his ears and starts humming in a high pitch; however, such a gesture also connotes a sense of anxiety or frustration. After our game of pretend-Kingdom Hearts, Jeremy just smiled. I'd never seen him so content.

The brief contact I've had with his caretakers suggests that the steps I've made with Jeremy are significant and unexpected. Whether this is the fault of the caretakers or simply the nature of autism, I cannot say for sure. There's no doubt in my mind that Jeremy was raised in front of a television: his knowledge of classic cartoons is superb. However, Jeremy's love for video games only came with the advent of voiced dialogue. From what I could gather, he knew nothing about any Final Fantasy before FFX, nor had he played any games pre-PlayStation 2. But, on the PlayStation 2, I believe he has beaten FFX, FFX-2, FFXII, and both Kingdom Hearts games. He also had some basic knowledge of a few non-Square Enix RPGs (such as Suikoden V, Rogue Galaxy, Grandia III), but it was clear that he had only played the first few hours of those. This exposure to video games, particularly RPGs, had changed Jeremy's life. And, after some fortunate events, it would allow me to understand him better.

As some of you may know, autism does not affect a person's intellectual capacity. Rather, it is a disorder that inhibits social interaction and communication, as if the person were in his or her own world. The progression of the disease from childhood onward can make life better or worse for a person. A child diagnosed with "moderate" autism, with the right therapy, may be considered as having "mild" autism by adulthood. To what extent did television and video games help or hurt Jeremy?

If I had to take a guess, I would say that all the television throughout childhood may have had an adverse affect on Jeremy. It clearly helped his mental cognition, increasing his range in vocabulary and perhaps helping him learn to sing and speak. But television is not an interactive medium. You sit, and you watch, and then you watch some more. Scenes from Jim Carrey's "The Cable Guy" come to mind.

But video games are interactive, in a sense. Though they may not give an autistic person what they need to develop social skills, the mere fact that the person is interacting with the television, through the controller, puts it a step above television. A short article from Revolution Health gave the following information regarding how to help an autistic child: "The idea is to stimulate these children. They don't get the stimulation they need when they engage in endlessly repetitive behaviors or simply stare into space for hours." Though one might accuse a hack and slash Action RPG of being "endlessly repetitive," the fact is that an RPG's dialogue and interactive characters are a far cry from what many outsiders think of at the mention of a "video game."

I am not a formally trained doctor, nor am I some sort of specialist in studying autism. I'm just a guy who likes RPGs, and one day I met another guy, with autism, who also likes RPGs. Is sitting in a room playing RPGs over and over ideal for a person with autism? Probably not. But it can certainly be used as a stepping stone for that person when they are faced with the real world. At the very least, that was my experience for Jeremy.

As a final note, I must re-emphasize that I am no expert on autism, and that my personal experience only taught me what it's like for a person with severe autism to play RPGs. People diagnosed with a mild form of autism may be better off avoiding gaming in general, but for those "beyond the brink" that have developed an almost addictive pattern of watching television, RPGs could be an unorthodox therapeutic alternative.

*name changed for the sake of anonymity.

- Patrick Gann