Tech & Media

My Autistic Daughter Creates Worlds That Welcome People Like Her

Oct 8, 2020

My girl’s a gamer.

She’s been playing Minecraft for almost a decade, and she’s only 18 years old. She will sometimes play for an entire afternoon at a time — sometimes into the wee small hours of the night —and I want to tell you why I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. In fact, I’m delighted.

Clara was a precocious child, with a reading ability and vocabulary well above her chronological age. She also was blessed with being truly, ridiculously cute. And as a result strangers would literally give her things at the market just to see her smile and bask in her glow. She’s always been very social, so when she was diagnosed with autism at age four, we were caught somewhat off guard.

Of course, there were signs

Her older brother had been diagnosed when he was three, but he presented very, very differently. Clara was late to walk, and she was easily overwhelmed in loud crowds. As a toddler she would pick up random items off the ground and refuse to part with them. By age four, her room was packed with hoarded items that we couldn’t get rid of without risking a massive meltdown. Like her brother, she started to read spontaneously when she was just two years old. She was terrified of sudden noises, and she hated surprises. But most of the time, she was cute and cuddly and smiling, and so it didn’t worry us too much. Besides, her brother’s needs required a lot of our attention.

"When we were given the diagnosis, we were blindsided."

We put her in an autism sibling study when she was four — not because we suspected that she was on the spectrum, but because we wanted to do our part for research. When we were given the diagnosis, we were blindsided. We had seen her brother’s diagnosis coming a mile away. We were ready for that one. But not this one.

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On Doubt

Several people in our immediate circle refused to accept the diagnosis. How could Clara possibly be autistic when she spoke so well? She was so outgoing. To them, she didn’t “look” autistic, but by that they largely meant that she seemed nothing like her brother. But as we have come to learn, autism presents very differently in girls than it does in boys. In Clara’s case, some of her biggest challenges didn’t present until her preteen years.

"As other kids started trying to 'fit in,' Clara saw no reason to conform."

By Grade 4, we started to notice that Clara was having trouble getting along with kids her own age. As the girls at her elementary school started forming cliques, Clara had trouble navigating the complexity of the “in crowd” and found it difficult to understand why her “friends'' were suddenly so petty, immature and mean. I’ll say it: little girls can be terrible. As other kids started trying to “fit in,” Clara saw no reason to conform. As an autistic person, she couldn’t fathom why people would conceal their true feelings, deceive others or sacrifice their personal happiness just to be part of the larger group. As a result, she was quickly ostracized, labelled as “weird” and “annoying,” and left out of social activities. She had a few friends, but she also experienced significant bullying. She desperately needed a place where she could be accepted for being herself.

Finding Room to Thrive

One day when she was about nine, she found that place. Walking through the living room, she noticed that her brother had walked away from the computer and had left himself logged in to a video game called Minecraft. She had watched him playing it before, so she hopped up into the computer chair and started pressing keys. She quickly learned how to move around and began to build things. In that one session, she was hooked. Soon, she was set up with her own account, and she found a kid-friendly server to play on. Meanwhile, I did some reading about the game and decided that I couldn’t see any reason for her not to play.

If I’m honest about how I recall Clara’s early days on Minecraft, I have to admit that I don’t really remember much. I just know that all of a sudden, it was something that she did. A lot. She didn’t come to us with questions about how to play the game, she just figured it out on her own. I love the fact that Minecraft is so intuitive for kids that way — it really encourages their independence.

"She was constructing a unique online identity, and doing so in a space where she was totally in control of how others perceived her."

I remember distinctly the day she called me over to show me that she had produced a perfect replica of our family home in Minecraft. It was done to scale, with furniture. I was astonished.

Clara’s Minecraft skills grew exponentially over the next few years. Her buildings got more and more elaborate. She was constructing a unique online identity, and doing so in a space where she was totally in control of how others perceived her. Minecraft gave her a safe space, away from the gossip and judgment of her peers at school.  It was a fantasy world that she could escape to any time she wanted, and there was always something new to learn.

Do you have a child interested in Minecraft? Check out Kids News for more details on their live Minecraft event on Saturday, October 10! Details here.

Finding Her Crew

One of my favourite memories of Clara and Minecraft was the day we took a visit to Maker Kids, a STEM-focussed kid-friendly maker space in downtown Toronto. We went for a drop in session because we heard that they had Minecraft-related programs. Clara walked in carrying one of her store-bought pickaxes and headed over to a group of boys seated at a pod of computers at the back of the room. One of them looked up and complimented her on the pickaxe. “Are you guys playing?” she asked. “Awesome!” One of the other boys looked up and said “Hold on: a girl who likes Minecraft? COOL!” Clara grinned widely and pulled up a chair, quickly joining in on their game. Before long, she was teaching them things they didn’t even know. As a teacher myself, I couldn’t help but beam with pride. Her confidence exploded that day.

As Clara transitioned to high school, Minecraft went with her. After a full day of classes, Clara often came home exhausted from all of the sensory stimulation and social pressures of school. Girls with autism are often very good at “masking” their difficulties by suppressing their self-stimulatory behaviours and instead mirroring the behaviour of those around them.

"But masking comes with a high price — it is physically and emotionally exhausting in extreme ways."

Clara is particularly good at it — in fact, many of her teachers expressed surprise and sometimes even disbelief when she disclosed her diagnosis because she masks so well.

But masking comes with a high price — it is physically and emotionally exhausting in extreme ways. Once she was home from school, Clara needed to be alone in her room to decompress. Usually, she would have a nap and then wake up to play Minecraft. When she had brought herself back to a calmer space, she was ready to tackle homework. 

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The Advantages I See

Minecraft has many advantages, particularly for autistic kids. In the game, Clara didn’t have to worry about making eye contact with anyone. She didn’t have to do the difficult work of trying to decode body language and non-verbal cues. She could be as literal and as quirky and as clever as she wanted, and she could move through the game at her own pace.

When COVID hit and we first went into lockdown, Minecraft gave Clara a safe place to pass the time with her online friends. Cut off from the outside world, the game gave her a way to leave the house in her imagination and escape the global pandemic by returning to the one thing that has never changed for her: Minecraft.

For her 18th birthday, she built a space in the game to host a party. There was virtual cake and presents and lots of laughter.

"In the game, Clara didn’t have to worry about making eye contact with anyone."

More than just an escape, gaming for Clara has presented her with a unique opportunity: a way to build relationships and skills. This past summer, as part of a virtual camp for kids with autism, she began to instruct kids on how to build worlds just as she does. That volunteer experience led to her becoming a certified Minecraft instructor.

The prospect of teaching in the Minecraft world, in turn, has made her excited to pursue teaching when she attends university.

As a mother and a teacher myself, I couldn’t be more proud.

Article Author Laura Kirby-McIntosh
Laura Kirby-McIntosh

Laura Kirby-McIntosh is the proud mother of two beautiful teenagers on the autism spectrum: her son Clifford, and her daughter Clara. She is an award-winning teacher with over 25 years of classroom experience, and a proud member of OSSTF District 19.

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