How Video Games Are Improving Autistic Lives - One Level At A Time

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Most teenagers find it hard to develop a self image. When you live on the autism spectrum you are basically slapped with a label whether you like it or not. What would you say if I said that video games were the answer to this identity-crisis?

I'm Thomas Kuzma, writer, teacher’s aide and an autism advocate. Let’s talk about why we should be using pop culture and video games to help improve the mental health of teenagers with autism.

Society lives in the real and the tech world, two existences that (don't hate me for referring to The Phantom Menace) live in a symbiotic cycle. Memes online become everyday jokes (if I see another student dab I'll punch a desk) and bullying in the real world continues online. I won't go into the “autistic meme" because autism is a positive quality. Unfortunately there's a lack of appreciation and respect of the talents/interests that autistic people hold.

In 2015 Aspect began a Peer Mentoring program to assist teenagers going through these hardships. Their mission: to have adults on the spectrum mentor autistic teenagers about how to face hardships and to enhance their quality of life. Primarily teach what it means to be an autistic person via a mentor relationship, rather than using an authoritative figure.

Autistic people deal with teachers, parents, doctors and other professionals when they are growing up. In the end there’s no one you can just chat with as an equal. Growing up atypical, my parents and teachers would always use God and Jesus to tell me what to do. Honestly I didn't think “love one another” would work when a bully breaks your face.

Now I'm not Professor Oak but how can you think that someone’s quality of life will change if you tell them stuff they have no interest in?

Video games were my teacher. Jak and Daxter taught me about loyalty in friendships and Optimus Prime taught me about perseverance. By quoting games it helped me build a voice. As an adult, I knew there were others with similar strong interests seen as obsessions. In reality they should be identified as passions. That’s why Aspect and one handsome autistic person (me) set up a mentoring program.

Dr Tom Tutton, the National Manager of Aspect Practice, knew how important this program was and assisted me in getting it ready. Here’s what he has to say about autism, mentoring and pop culture:

Video games and pop culture provide a lot of happiness for many people with autism. Unfortunately, many of them have very difficult life experiences – they might be bullied, isolated, not given the support they deserve etc and as a result have to find opportunities of happiness that are under their control.

Autistic people have many strengths and strong interests and frequently can use these strengths in video games and pop culture situations. Games can give a sense of mastery as people work their way through a game and the character develops and collections grow. Success in games can also support self-esteem as people are highly regarded by others for their skills. For this reason, Autism Spectrum Australia uses the phrase ‘A different brilliant’ that leads to understanding, engaging and embracing the strengths and interests of people on the autism spectrum.

Like many interests, video games and pop culture can provide a means for making friends, both online and in person. Online connections mean that social interactions are much easier as lots of the complex visual social information (like body language) aren't present. Topic expertise also means that conversations are easier as people who share the same interest have plenty to talk about and role playing gives people an opportunity to practice a range of social roles.

In addition, the convention community is very accepting of difference. Thomas (the writer) has described feeling able to completely relax and be himself at conventions. I’m sure people are drawn to pop culture too because they see themselves represented positively – whether in games like Overwatch or movies like Guardians of the Galaxy.

Aspect’s peer mentoring program, where people on the spectrum act as mentors for others, is a really important service. We have worked in many situations where young autistic people have had terribly difficult lives and feel alienated and alone. Professionals like me can sometimes struggle to build meaningful connections in these situations and peer mentors are a great way forward. Mentors on the spectrum are able to build connections more easily through shared experiences and likes. If a teenager loves Pokemon, mentors understand this, using it to build trust and positivity. This sets up a situation where mentees are more open to learning about themselves and developing their skills. Skilled mentors can even use people’s passions to teach life lessons.

This Peer Mentoring program has helped adults and teenagers learn about themselves and, speaking as a mentor, it’s wonderful to use video games for good.

One mentee had an issue, getting physical when being racially bullied. He loved Super Smash Brothers and Pokemon. His speech pathologist told me when we played Smash Brothers he would really get into it. How would I handle this?

The mentee and I were discussing movies when he eagerly brought up Star Wars. He really enjoyed how the Jedi fought through every battle, for justice! From then until the end of the program I’d regularly use Jedi analogies. We looked at how the Jedi came about and the importance of self regulating emotions.

Before we knew it everything clicked. We talked to the mentee’s year coordinator at school and implemented “Star Wars” styled strategies in the classroom. He was allowed to leave at any signs of stress, meditating by walking around.

It’s been three years since the Peer Mentoring program started and I've been implementing my mentorship into Aspect's Western Sydney School. You read it from Dr Tom Tutton; video games and mentoring go hand-in-hand. By utilizing the interests of those with autism we are building better minds and futures.

Thomas Kuzma is a 20-something gamer, cosplayer and person on the spectrum who works as an Engagement Officer for Autism Spectrum Australia. If you would like him to speak at your business as a mental health advocate, please contact him here .

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