Autism at the Tabletop

Recently, I reached out to folks on social media to learn more about players on the autism spectrum and how, we as game masters, can accommodate any special needs that they may require from our side of the screen. Ben Warren an RPG author/designer who is on the autism spectrum responded with the following article. While personal to his needs, I have found it educational and I hope others will as well. I’m thankful for folks like Ben who are willing to allow us into their world, so we can learn and grow as people to become better game hosts. Keep in mind Autism encompasses a wide range of challenges; more than covered by Ben. To learn more about Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) please visit Autism Self Advocacy Network.

~ Modoc

Let me start this post by telling you about something I’d normally hate; sitting around a table with other people for hours at a time. Spending all of that time talking and intensively exchanging ideas, often in noisy public spaces. Yet every Monday evening (and now Wednesday evenings too), I deliberately make the time to do exactly this; and I look forward to it.

I would find something like this difficult because I am autistic. Interacting with other people requires a lot more energy and effort than it does for many non-autistic people. Even just a normal day at my office job, where I’ve got nothing more strenuous to deal with than small talk and background noise, can leave me exhausted. So why would I do this? Because those Monday evenings are when I play roleplaying games.

Roleplaying games are one of my special interests, something that I’m so passionate about that I can devote massive amounts of time and energy to it and still feel energized from engaging with it. I think about game mechanics, character ideas, campaign plans near-constantly, and spend my spare time reading rulebooks and blog posts on RPGs. I run my own campaign, play in another, and currently writing an RPG focussed on my childhood special interest, dinosaurs.

RPGs are great for autistic people. They provide structured social time. An inbuilt conversation starter by being there with all the rules you need in a book that you can pick up and read at any time. In day-to-day interactions, I often feel I’m scrabbling to keep up, so having this structured interaction with other people lets me socialize without having to exhaust myself with having to constantly analyze what they say and plan my replies. I can go to an RPG game and come back feeling energized; immersing myself in my passion and socializing on my terms.

Many autistic people enjoy RPGs for similar reasons, but even so, if you have one or more autistic players in your group it can still be demanding for them. I believe that RPGs should be for everyone, so I’ve put together a shortlist of things you can do to help them at the table.

Before we go any further, I should let you know of a saying in the autistic community; “if you’ve met an autistic person, you’ve met an autistic person”. The needs and recommendations I’m going to talk about are very general, and may not apply to autistic people at your table, and they may have their own needs that you need to be mindful of. The best advice I can give is to talk to them about any special needs they have and work with them to make your table work for them. This advice is primarily aimed at GMs, but can be useful for anyone wanting to accommodate the autistic members of a playgroup. That said, if you’re running a table with one or more autistic people, these are a few things you can do to make your table more comfortable and welcoming for them:

  • Noise and light: Many autistic people struggle with sensory overload; our brains need more energy to process input from our senses. While we can potentially be overloaded by taste, smell or touch, light and noise are two things at a table that a group can control more easily.

Dimmer light is often more comfortable for autistic people, and even just switching off a few lights can make a difference. Make sure that everyone can read character sheets and notes, of course, but limiting light to ‘softer’ light and switching off fluorescent light can make a lot of difference.

Noise can also be overwhelming for autistic people. Often this can be less of a problem with volume (although that can be an issue). Instead, it about processing sound; especially lots of different sounds at once. For example, I can listen to one person talking to me without issue, but if more than one person talking at once, or background noise, I can’t make sense of what they’re saying!

The easiest way to avoid this is to encourage people to not talk over each other (I feel this is good tabletop etiquette anyway) and to try and limit background noise; music and sound effects can be exciting and immersive but can be difficult to hear over.

These things are trickier to arrange if you’re playing at a convention or a store. However, it’s worth speaking to staff to see if there’s anything that can be done to make it more accessible, such as if some of the lights can be switched off or if there’s a quieter area you can play in.

  • Ask directed questions: Ask more specific questions rather than open-ended ones that can leave an autistic player stuck in decision paralysis. For example, if the PCs are having some downtime in town, asking an autistic player “what do you want to do?” can leave them wondering if you want to know, what they want to do in town, the entire campaign, or if the question applies to their character or them as a player. Asking a more directed question such as “what do you want to do in town?”, “Are there any shops you want to visit?”, “Anybody you would like to speak to?”, “Is there something else you’d like to do?”, makes it a lot easier for autistic players to find an answer.
  • Let them listen in their way: The body language of autistic people is often very different to those of non-autistic people. When we’re not looking you in the eye and/or are fidgeting with something, we’re actually listening and having a much easier time of understanding you than if we’re looking you in the eye and keep still. Phones and other distractions at the table can be a contentious topic in some circles, but for many autistics, they actually help us pay attention. I once spent an entire campaign making mind maps of its lore and plot.  While I might have looked distracted on my laptop I was definitely, definitely listening.

This is not a comprehensive list, and the best way to accommodate for your autistic players, and for your players who may be neurodivergent and disabled in other ways, is to directly ask them yourself. A few steps like this, however, are a good way to start making your tables more welcoming and accommodating for everyone who’s playing.

~ Ben Warren

Ben Warren is an autistic game master and game designer, as well as a dinosaur enthusiast and card game geek. He is writing material for the supernatural roleplaying game SINS, and the starter book for his own RPG, Stone and Claw—a game of stone age survival and community in the late Cretaceous—is due for release in December. You can follow him on Twitter at @benmaxwarren.

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