On June 4, 2019, a man by the name of Stuart Duncan (also known as AutismFather) had celebrated his birthday with the players of his server– a safe space for many gamers on the autism spectrum. Sadly, based on how long it’ll take for this article to be posted, his birthday would have passed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate his accomplishments and how far he has come with his project.
NOTE: This article was originally written on my old website snapshotmc.com by BorkMork and republished here with permission.
Back in 2013, this man would establish a small server called Autcraft. In his own words:
“Autcraft isn’t really a special place. It’s a place with special people. The nicest, friendliest, most social group of people you will ever meet.”
– Stuart Duncan.
The social group of people he’s referring to are players — mostly kids and young adults — that are part of the autism spectrum or diagnosed with Asperger’s; ranging from high-functioning to severe, these kids are given a place to play without the unneeded anxiety or threat of harassment from mean-spirited peers.
Ever since its conception, the server has thrived with different people coming-and-going as they pleased, learning new skills, life lessons, or the realization that there’s someone there to help them in times of vulnerability.
It all came from Duncan’s realization six years ago that these children needed a safe place away from online servers that advocated for trolling, bullying, rude language, and other bad examples of etiquette. Especially behaviors that were a detriment to who they are as people. As a father with the same disorder, and a son on the same boat, he decided to take the time to set up a server, whitelisting families on Facebook that wanted in on his plan.
In 48 hours he gathered up to 750 emails from people looking to get them or their family members whitelisted onto the server.
The thing with autism and other conditions akin to it is that people function differently regarding how they handle the world and the people surrounding them. Some could do certain things well or require time to develop their speech on their own. Others would need trial-and-error or a way to release energy that was pent up inside of them. It differs from person to person, but the way they handle themselves can vary a lot.
What Stuart Duncan did was take advantage of Minecraft’s sandbox, using it as a way to teach kids a few key points: communication, positive reinforcement, equality, and lack of fear.
In Dr. Kathryn Ringland’s research paper, Would You Be Mine: Appropriating Minecraft As An Assistive Technology For Youth With Autism (with its sister paper, A Place to Play), it discussed the strategy AutismFather used to teach these valuable skills. With the interpersonal and connected community of the videogame, players were able to turn the mechanics into a form of assistive technology.
What is assistive technology? By common definition, they’re devices that are used to assist struggling or developing individuals that have challenges in understanding the world or have a hard time functioning in it. These tools can give them a better way to communicate, enunciate, cope with loss, and the list can go on from there.
Minecraft is the overall definition of this; in the right hands, it could help people develop in ways that couldn’t’ve been done on a personal level. This massive landscape could fit ways for people to bring themselves into a tight package of unique individuals, and moments of growth can be found on this server all the time.
One example can be found in Charlie Warzel’s article on Autcraft:
“Tim’s friend had recently committed suicide, and it was clear he was shaken and upset. Within minutes of talking, Angela understood that Tim didn’t have a family he felt comfortable talking to. Running through her own mental checklist, Angela suggested that, if comfortable, he should seek out and talk to a guidance counselor or school therapist. But Angela knew Tim needed help right away. “You need to find some help but how can I help you right now? How can we help release all this that you’re feeling?” she asked.
Tim asked Angela if she’d help him build a memorial for his friend and the two began constructing: Tim built a cross out of some stone blocks; Angela planted flowers. Later, Tim fashioned a sign, which he hung on the stone cross. “You will never see the stars if your head is always down,” it read. Angela invited some of the nearby children to see what Tim had built. One by one they offered up their support, taking turns embracing him. The next day, Tim confessed that Angela’s support had helped him feel better about his friend.”
However, even with the utilization of Minecraft, Stuart Duncan does more than just use the game to help players out. With a band of enthusiastic volunteers, he goes on the belief that communication and positive reinforcements are key to helping others who are in need.
What all of these have in common is that they’re implemented systems that allow players to be given a place of fortitude or reinforcement of behavior that’s healthy to coping or moving from day-to-day. Calm Rooms are for people who need a place to relax when a sensory overload or panic attacks ensue. Player of the Week, CBAs (Caught Being Awesome), and TAOs (Thinking About Others) have different ways to advocate and bring a spotlight to players who are genuine in their actions and efforts on the server platform.
It’s these types of supports that give them a sense of control rather than a feeling of helplessness for who they are as human beings. Incentives or leaderboards are only going to place a sense of importance on things that aren’t really important in the long term (like how much people you’ve successfully pvp’ed), so this switch of focus to personal achievements is an important step for this server to take.
But the thing that solidifies this server as an important key in learning and education, is the focal point of equality. Not the equality where groups of people have the same comforts or the same mindsets of care, but the type of equality that considers each background of the player and made sure each individual can play without them being hindered in some way.
To give a case of this, Stuart Duncan went into a story at TEDxYorkU about a child who was slowly losing his vision. Their only way for them to read the text properly in chat was to section off each message by dashes and lines — which would fill up and annoy the other players. Instead of muting the player for this behavior, Duncan decided to take the time to bring a developer on the server to create a better way for the chat to section off lines of text and highlight names for visibility.
It worked. And the moral of the story was this:
“It’s just one example of how doing a little bit extra, small modification still helps everybody be on equal footing even though you did a little extra just for that one player.” – Stuart Duncan.
This server celebrates a lot of individuality. People aren’t afraid to say their mind or learn new things each and every day, and it’s incredible how far this server has come with its ability to bring people — on an international level — together against adversity.
AutCraft, for its tenacity to inspire and lead, has grown a lot throughout the years. People came and went, having fun all the while, but the server itself has retained its wholesome atmosphere and an amazing sense of compassion and is now six years old at the making of this article.
In the words of Duncan on his official letter to the server’s anniversary, this was more than just a simple Minecraft server:
“Autcraft is making autistic children feel proud to be autistic, not ashamed. It’s encouraging autistic children to reclaim our identity and to be proud of it and not let bullies use “autistic” or “autism” as an insult anymore. It’s celebrating our diversity and showing the world just how wrong it’s been about autistic people all along.
Autcraft is 6 years old today. And it’s changing the world.” -Stuart Duncan