There will be those of you who have begun your journey through this article — a journey predestined for a violent end, I’m afraid — with a certain feeling of demiverachtung; “little contempt”, the sentiment many feel when they have begun reading an online article in spite of, or indeed because of, the fact that they are fairly sure that its subject, or one aspect of its subject, is to some degree beneath them. “What a choice of topic focus”, perhaps you scoffed…
“ …Minecraft. And relative to such a serious topic as autism”
For those of you to whom this description applies, and to whom demiverachtung currently attaches itself, your conception of what Minecraft is will be roughly demonstrated by the first video posted beneath this introductory paragraph, in which a user navigates a crude pyramid.
The complication I would venture to mix with that initial conception is contained within the second video, posted beneath the first, in which another user constructs their own pyramid.
Excuse the soundtrack.
There is good reason why at least one major news circulation dubbed Minecraft the young century’s greatest game. One would be hard-pressed to deny the sense of sublimity that is engendered by the structural realisation in that second video. However imaginary its product, it is clearly the work of will and wild animus, the kind which, as it piles one brick atop the last, knowing there are hundreds of thousands still to go, wrestles down the sense of uncertainty or presumed futility-of-effort which the builders of the original pyramids must themselves have struggled with.
For a game to endow players with such sublime creative possibilities is one argument for its greatness, certainly. And yet there is something else which scatters the marker of greatness upon this most monumental sandbox — the way in which its product has, in fact, spilt over from digital life into the real world. This has nothing to do with the constructions themselves, and everything instead to do with the communities that will naturally spring up around this shared will-to-build.
In our world which, in its mind-boggling degree of networkedness and infinite interrelation of all things to all others, can produce compromised implications for even the most seemingly straightforward or innocent of acts and entities, the Minecraft server named Autcraft is one of the rarest of things — an almost totally unalloyed good. If you are of an even moderately humanistic persuasion, its basic value proposition will mist your eyes. Watch the video below to acquaint yourself with it.
For those of you with a colloquially formed idea of what autism is — or no idea of it at all — the DSM-5 classifies it as a spectrum-based development disorder. It’s characterised a variety of difficulties with social interaction and communication, as well as by idiosyncratic behaviours. It is associated to both genetic predisposition and environmental factors , its characteristics run beyond those principle symptoms into extraordinary variation, and it affects almost 25 million people worldwide.
The wider relationship between autisitic spectrum disorders (ASD) and the internet itself is rich and intimate. It is primarily since the standardisation of internet access as a social norm that autistic culture itself has been able to form at scale. Yes, autistic culture, formed around the strain of belief that autism need not be considered a disorder but rather a re-order, to be accommodated and appraised for its potential benefits as well as its limitations, rather than cured.
There have also been investigations into the relation between ASD and compulsive internet use (CIU); “whether individuals compensate for offline difficulties through online interactions,” and whether an excess of screen-time might exacerbate existing symptoms associated to the spectrum.
It is owing to these unique means by which a person on the autistic spectrum experiences the world, and life online, that Minecraft can be such a valuable tool. Supriya Rai — entrepreneur, CTO of Switcheroo Global, published academic and serial hackathon winner, and herself a person on the autistic spectrum — believes that her own experience has shown her how Minecraft can be foundational in helping autistic children map their experiences into a wider context.
“I try to find the basics and understand the rules of things myself, or rather I create them based on what I see. Instead of learning 2+2=4, when I see each time that it’s true, I create my own logic. I think Minecraft will enhance the way these children solve problems — you’re seeing the problem in front of you, without having it communicated to you what that problem is.
And it provides a great sense of control — it’s a very good mix of freedom to do whatever you want, while seeing the steps in [your own] thought process as well. It gives a deep understanding of levels of engagement, too, with various inputs — colours, shapes, sound. Because most autistic people have a kind of sensory impairment, to some degree, Minecraft might encourage them to understand [the connotations] of those colours and shapes, and transfer those skills to the real world.
It also gives them an understanding of abstract things like time and changes, and to be comfortable with them. One thing that can really disturb people with autism is change — on a level, it’s scary for everyone, but it can be disruptive for autistic people in particular. Minecraft can give you a notion of being comfortable with changes, and understanding of time as well. Slowly these children will develop levels of understanding of abstraction, in this way, by playing the game.”
There are other aspects of the internet experience which are, in some sense, unique to those on the autism spectrum. For them, safe passage on the internet is nothing to take for granted. While not without risk of psychic scars inflicted in the attempt, the average person can go about doing the things which compose a notionally fruitful digital life (browsing and contributing to messageboards; joining online communities and gaming servers) without coming to harm. For the autistic, this possibility is severely compromised.
Gaming is hardly the region most saturated with internet polity, but the pure existence of an entity like Autcraft suggests that it is hard for young people and their families to be assured of a civil and pleasant user experience when gaming, if that user has autism.
Mollifying the Antisocial Network
The socialisation and education of children with autism is not an idle pursuit. In the real world, creating conditions for safe play and learning for those on the spectrum is the subject of considerable debate. 71% of autistic children in the UK attend mainstream schools, but some experts, like Allison Hope-West, allege that, without individualised support, it is “unlikely that a pupil with autism will make the academic and social progress that they should.” The majority of educational support for children with autism comes under the SEN initiative. There is as much variation in quality of care for children with autism under this initiative as there is variation in quality within the British school system itself.
Joyce Nahed, a Speech and Language Therapist who works in liaison with SEN at various schools in and around London, stresses that, given every autistic child is different much in the manner that every neurotypical child is, there is no singularly effective solution for the educative management of the condition. She suggests the primary focus should be on the creation of as ideal a set of circumstances for socialisation and learning as possible. “You can, of course, create an environment that is adaptable to children’s needs, and some environments are going to be better than other environments that are more accessible to these children. So even if it’s not 100% its much better than having a more concrete environment.”
“It’s just like we say, every child is an individual. but there’s obviously a lot we can do to make the world more accessible to them. It just requires a lot of funding and people to really care and take the time to stop and think ‘ How can I help this child? What can make it easier for them?’”
Nahed is particularly careful to emphasise that the responsibility for creating this environment lays across the entire schooling community, not just with teachers or specialist educators.
“I think the most important thing we can do is to empower children with ASD (other than SALT-targeting their language and social needs) is to truly make their environment more inclusive, which is done by raising awareness as a whole school; making sure that typically-developing children are geared up to empower, support, and engage with children who are developing differently. A lot of it is about not alienating these children; that’s the whole point of ‘inclusive schools.”
The presence of specialists like Nahed is much required, but cannot disguise the fact that elsewhere the UK’s educational architecture is ill-prepared for addressing the needs of its special needs children. Dan Leighton, a representative of the UK’s National Autistic Society, highlighted another principal concern: “The problem is there is no initial teacher training in relation to teaching children with autism — this is not directly regulated by the Department of Education.”
This limiting situation for children on the autism spectrum in the UK is standardisable to many of the world’s leading nations on care for the autistic. Go further East, and in many cases the condition becomes less and less a subject of visible concern for institutional bodies.
In light of this deficiency in public services, Stuart “AutismFather” Duncan’s endeavours to create a specialist gaming and learning environment through Minecraft seems more poignant still, and deeply necessary.
The Silence of the Mine
Duncan’s efforts on behalf of his son, and on behalf of children with autism all around the world, seem on the surface like a story of the triumph of the Early Digital period’s free allocation of entrepreneurial resources. A key service benefitting a significant community was missing from the social fabric — so a citizen built it, free of any subsidy from a large organisation or other body. PCGamer has it that Duncan’s full-time administration of the server is supported by Patreonage, other freelance donations and the sale of “cheap in-game perks.”
From another angle, this lack of official subsidy seems sadly true to the character of the global approach to the support of families with autistic members — a murmur of concern, making way for silence. The larger silence which then envelops the panorama is the silence of Minecraft itself.
Indeed, the need of Autcraft raises old questions about the way in which reformative action against prejudice, with all its difficulties, has been substituted in favour of separate socialisation. It is easy, and thoroughly justified to take issue with the lack of support Minecraft proper has shown to Duncan, or to the game’s many individual autistic users before his intervention. To do so requires the restatement of a common issue with technology that works at such vast scale — it has no publicly answerable caucus, no court of appeals designed to ensure safe conduct and passage for all within the platform. It is not unreasonable to wonder why it is not Minecraft that are spending the required pittance from their own vast capital reserves, or leveraging their incomparable notoriety, to ensure that their own users, autistic or not, can enjoy a free and equitable experience in-play with their fellows of all other varying stripes.
If they cannot do that, they might at least spare some of those assets laid undoubtedly spare to pay Duncan a wage for his work.
If it is a transitional measure to the fair socialisation that these children at play deserve, then Autcraft is a pure miracle, providing crucial oasisical respite for those kids and families it caters to, while we take up the larger and long-unfolding didactic task of banishing the germ of undifferentiated prejudice from our society. If it is considered an end, then it is a reflection, albeit a sweet one, a wholly unintended one, and moreover one shone against the deepest sense of charity and goodness, of a progressive doctrine of essentialism and voluntary segregation, and yet another instance of a monolithic giant of technology affecting helplessness on matters of their users’ human development.
 Including infections and exposure to drugs, alcohol, lead, pesticides and air pollutants during pregnancy, but not including vaccination of the mother or the Autistic child.