How I use Minecraft to help kids with autism | Stuart Duncan


My name is Stuart Duncan, but I’m actually probably
better known online as “AutismFather.” That’s me on the internet. I know the resemblance is uncanny. (Laughter) But I’m going to talk
a little bit today about Minecraft. That’s my Minecraft character. If you don’t know the game very well,
don’t worry too much about it. It’s just the medium that I used
at the time to fill a need. And what I want to talk about applies
to pretty much every situation. So about four years ago,
I started a Minecraft server for children with autism
and their families, and I called it “Autcraft.” And since then, we’ve been in the news
all around the world, on television and radio and magazines. Buzzfeed called us “one of
the best places on the internet.” We’re also the subject
of an award-winning research paper called “Appropriating Minecraft as an Assistive
Technology for Youth with Autism.” It’s a bit of a mouthful. But you get the idea, I think. So I want to talk a little bit
about that research paper and what it’s about, but first I have to give you
a little bit of history on how the server came to be. Back in 2013, everybody
was playing Minecraft, kids and adults alike, with and without autism, of course. But it was the big thing. But I saw parents on social media
reaching out to other parents, asking if their autistic children
could play together. And the reason is that when they tried
to play on public servers, they kept running into bullies and trolls. When you have autism, you behave
a little differently sometimes, sometimes a lot differently. And we all know a little bit of difference
is all you really need for a bully to make you their next target. So these terrible, terrible people online, they would destroy everything
that they tried to make, they would steal all their stuff, and they would kill them
over and over again, making the game virtually unplayable. But the worst part,
the part that really hurt the most, was what these bullies
would say to these kids. They’d call them rejects and defects and retards. And they would tell these kids,
some as young as six years old, that society doesn’t want them, and their own parents
never wanted a broken child, so they should just kill themselves. And of course, these kids, you understand, they would sign off
from these servers angry and hurt. They would break their keyboards,
they’d quite literally hate themselves, and their parents felt powerless
to do anything. So I decided I had to try and help. I have autism, my oldest son has autism, and both my kids and I love Minecraft, so I have to do something. So I got myself a Minecraft server, and I spent some time,
built a little village with some roads and a big welcome sign and this guy
and a lodge up on a mountaintop, and tried to make it inviting. The idea was pretty simple. I had a white list, so only people
that I approved could join, and I would just monitor
the server as much as I could, just to make sure that nothing went wrong. And that was it, that was the whole
promise: to keep the kids safe so they could play. When it was done, I went to Facebook and posted a pretty simple message
to my friends list, not publicly. I wanted to see if there
was any interest in this, and if it really could help. Turns out that I greatly underestimated
just how much this was needed, because within 48 hours, I got 750 emails. I don’t have that many Facebook friends. (Laughter) Within eight days, I had to upgrade
the hosting package eight times, from the bottom package
to the most expensive package they had, and now, almost four years later, I have 8,000 names on the white list
from all around the world. But the reason I’m up here
today to talk to you isn’t just because I gave kids
a safe place to play. It’s what happened while they played. I started hearing from parents who said their children
were learning to read and write by playing on the server. At first they spelled things
by sound, like most kids do, but because they were part of a community, they saw other people
spelling the same words properly and just picked it up. I started hearing from parents
who said that their nonverbal children were starting to speak. They only talked about Minecraft,
but they were talking. (Laughter) Some kids made friends at school
for the first time ever. Some started to share,
even give things to other people. It was amazing. And every single parent came to me
and said it was because of Autcraft, because of what you’re doing. But why, though? How could all of this be
just from a video game server? Well, it goes back to that
research paper I was talking about. In it, she covers some of the guidelines
I used when I created the server, guidelines that I think help encourage
people to be their very best. I hope. For example, communication. It can be tough for kids with autism. It could be tough
for grown-ups without autism. But I think that kids
should not be punished, they should be talked to. Nine times out of ten, when the kids
on the server act out, it’s because of something that’s happened
in the day at school or home. Maybe a pet died. Sometimes it’s just
a miscommunication between two kids. One doesn’t say what they’re about to do. And so we just offer to help. We always tell the children
on the server that we’re not mad, and they’re not in trouble; we only want to help. And it shows that not only do we care, but we respect them enough
to listen to their point of view. Respect goes a long way. Plus, it shows them that they have
everything they need to be able to resolve these problems
on their own in the future and maybe even avoid them,
because, you know, communication. On most servers, as video games are, children are rewarded,
well, players are rewarded, for how well they do
in a competition, right? The better you do,
the better reward you get. That can be automated; the server
does the work, the code is there. On Autcraft, we don’t do that. We have things like
“Player of the Week” and “CBAs,” which is “Caught Being Awesome.” (Laughter) We award players ranks on the servers
based on the attributes they exhibit, such as the “Buddy” rank for people
who are friendly towards others, and “Junior Helper” for people
that are helpful towards others. We have “Senior Helper” for the adults. But they’re obvious, right? Like, people know what to expect
and how to earn these things because of how they’re named. As soon as somebody signs onto the server, they know that they’re going
to be rewarded for who they are and not what they can do. Our top award, the AutismFather Sword, which is named after me
because I’m the founder, is a very powerful sword that
you can’t get in the game any other way than to show that you completely put
the community above yourself, and that compassion and kindness
is at the core of who you are. We’ve given away quite a few
of those swords, actually. I figure, if we’re watching the server
to make sure nothing bad happens, we should also watch for the good things
that happen and reward people for them. We’re always trying
to show all the players that everybody is considered
to be equal, even me. But we know we can’t treat
people equally to do that. Some of the players get angry very easily. Some of them have additional
struggles on top of autism, such as OCD or Tourette’s. So, I have this knack
of remembering all of the players. I remember their first day,
the conversations we’ve had, things we’ve talked about,
things they’ve built. So when somebody comes
to me with a problem, I handle that situation differently
than I would with any other player, based on what I know about them. For the other admins and helpers,
we document everything so that, whether it’s good or bad
or a concerning conversation, it’s there, so everybody is aware. I want to give you one example
of this one player. He was with us for a little while, but at some point he started
spamming dashes in the chat, like a big long line of dashes
all the way across the screen. A little while later, he’d do it again. The other players asked him
not to do that, and he’d say, “OK.” And then he’d do it again. It started to frustrate the other players. They asked me to mute him
or to punish him for breaking the rules, but I knew there had to be
something more to it. So I went to his aunt, who is
the contact that I have for him. She explained that
he had gone blind in one eye and was losing his vision in the other. So what he was doing
was splitting up the chat into easier-to-see blocks of text, which is pretty smart. So that very same night, I talked
to a friend of mine who writes code and we created a brand-new
plug-in for the server that makes it so that
any player on the server, including him, of course, could just enter a command
and instantly have every single line separated by dashes. Plus, they can make it
asterisks or blank lines or anything they want —
whatever works best for them. We even went a little bit extra
and made it so it highlights your name, so that it’s easier to see
if somebody mentions you. It’s just one example of how
doing a little bit extra, a small modification, still helps everybody be on equal footing, even though you did a little extra
just for that one player. The big one is to be not afraid. The children on my server are not afraid. They are free to just be themselves, and it’s because we support
and encourage and celebrate each other. We all know what it feels like
to be the outcast and to be hated simply for existing, and so when we’re together on the server,
we’re not afraid anymore. For the first two years
or so on the server, I talked to two children per week
on average that were suicidal. But they came to me because
I’m the one that made them feel safe. They felt like I was the only person
in the world they could talk to. So I guess my message is: whether you have a charity
or some other organization, or you’re a teacher or a therapist or you’re a parent
who is just doing your very best, or you’re an autistic, like I am, no matter who you are, you absolutely must help these children
strip away those fears before you do anything else, because anything else
is going to feel forced unless they’re not afraid. It’s why positive reinforcement
will always do better than any form of punishment. They want to learn when they
feel safe and happy. It just happens naturally;
they don’t even try to learn. These are words from the kids
on the server to describe the server. The one thing I would hope
that you could take away is that no matter what somebody else
is going through in life right now, whether they’re being bullied
at school or at home, if they’re questioning their sexuality
or even their gender, which happens a lot
in the autism community, if they’re feeling alone or even suicidal, you have to live your life in such a way that that person feels like they can
come to and tell you. They have to feel perfectly safe
in talking to you about it. If you want to see
a group of autistic children — kids who society wrongly thinks
are supposed to be antisocial and lacking in empathy — if you want to see them come together
and build the most compassionate and friendly and generous
community you’ve ever seen, the kind of place that people
would write about as one of the best places on the internet, they’ll do that. I’ve seen it. I’m there every day. But they have some huge obstacles
that they have to overcome to do that, and it would be really helpful
to have somebody there who could help to show them that
the only thing they really have to fear is self-doubt. So I guess I’m asking you
to please be that person for them, because to them, those kids — it means everything. Thank you very much. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “How I use Minecraft to help kids with autism | Stuart Duncan

  1. Everyone waiting for the sarcastic comments to start while in reality everyone commenting is actually super respectful and behaves like a responsible grown up.

    Is this real life? Where is the mean spirit that comes with anonymity and an opportunity to throw some cheap and easy jokes?

  2. Is the server on the PC? My nephew has autism and loves Minecraft… But he only has a PS3 and I only have an Xbox One. Does anyone know?

  3. This would be great for many other games and people with other conditions too and mental health issues for example. Internet is the worst place to look for self-confidence and courage and no bullying, gameplay or communication wise. But it still, I feel like, has the most potential to create those opportunities.

  4. I haven't really played Minecraft nor watched a ted talk in a while but I'm glad I watched this, this is inspiring. I doubted the internet but I'm glad that the majority of everyone is being grateful and respectful and not full of mindless hate.

    Autismfather I know you may be seeing you this as a normal thing but the impact you've made to people with autism and changing the perception of others is beautiful, I hope your proud of yourself and the community 🙂

  5. This is such an amazing idea, really love the cause and it sounds like an awesome community has been build around it. You've truly done a great job Stuart 🙂

  6. we had this idea long ago. My wife and I built an entire curriculum around it. Then she got sick and we had to drop everything to figure things out. Now I've got to do it! People will think it's because I saw this video, but w/e.

  7. Awesome initiative! I'm inspired to see I'm not the only person who sees the potential for creating positive, inclusive and healing environments online. This definitely gives me impetus on my own projects. Keep up the great work!

  8. great talk, wonderful guy, brilliant concept – thank you for stepping out and doing something and making the world a better place

  9. This man is really awesome. He has gone above and beyond his means to create a safe space for people with autism. It's so amazing to watch this beautiful talk.

  10. This was awesome, as a guy with Aspergers I am so happy to see things like this, it will help SO many people.

  11. I love this. I am 30 and have autism. I run a Discord server filled with other adults with autism. Many of us have become close friends during the 1 1/2 years the server has been up.

  12. Согласен.Не нравится когда ты что-то сотворил и это разрушили.Это иногда напрягает

  13. my friend and I were arguing about video games because he said Minecraft was better than call of duty.Does that mean my friend is autistic?

  14. I wish that my son were able to be involved in something like this. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that he'll ever be able to be involved in much. I watch him everyday and my heart breaks. Sorry for having a mini breakdown on here. I just feel so lost.

  15. Это видео на русском уже на канале.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7dNo-7cCEQ&t=1s

  16. How can I find this server for my son? I don’t know much about Minecraft his older brother has him on there somehow and it’s just them in their world and my five year old is super smart he has high functioning autism

  17. well seriously if a kid break my server by putting bunch of TNT and blow the entire map to oblivion…… how can I not say something mean while not knowing who is actually doing this

  18. Ahh, so this is similar to natural selection. The autistic kids were able to get into the head of normal people and make them leave the game. They introduced more autistic kids to Minecraft. And that’s were we are now.

  19. Hello, I am from South Korea and our most-used searching engine like google in the US just posted your video on the video section of the website. That's how I get to watch your video.
    I have been shedding tears the whole time while watching it.
    I am so touched by your amazing work and feel grateful that there are still people with a warm heart like you out there in the world trying to make the world a better place for those who need our attention and affection. I was especially so moved by the way you dealt with the kid who was blinding, instead of just following the other users' request/complaint. We need more people like you in the world! Please keep being the way as you are and keep up with the good work. God bless you. <3

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