Welcoming Neurodiverse Youth to the Game Table: From the Perspective of a Neuro Diversity Specialist, by Thomas R Wilson

This article by TTRPGkids is part of a parallel shared guest post between TTRPGkids and Thomas R Wilson, a Neuro Diversity Specialist. You can find the TTRPGkids parallel post about Using TTRPGs to Teach Kids Social-Emotional Skills here and can find Thomas’s website here!

There is magic to role-playing games. It is not just the power of the imagination, the rolling of dice, or the ability to create exciting characters. It is the ability to welcome youth to spaces we craft with safety and security in mind and to see them laugh, smile, and even dance joyfully.

As someone who has worked with youth in the Neuro Diverse Community for about twelve years, I have learned two significant things. All youth deserve to be able to access quality community engagement, and all deserve to be treated with respect regardless of their diagnosis or age. While I have learned much more, these are the driving forces of my work. I currently serve as a neurodiversity Game Master, among other responsibilities. And there is nothing like seeing the transition that TTRPGs can cause in the youth mindset. This is even more remarkable when youth know they are genuinely safe and appreciated when they start a game.

At that moment when a youth truly feels safe, especially in our modern world, you can see them at their most sincere. I have always loved Table Top Role-playing games, yet in my more recent years, I genuinely adore seeing how youth think and process when secure in their safety. In this, we see that youth are free to express their thoughts and feelings and are willing to demonstrate themselves without masking. Providing a safe space is more than just encouraging; it is acting as an authority,  making sure that we have control over the mood of the space, being aware of possible dangers in and outside of the space, and having the ability to respond with composure to unexpected scenarios, both major and minor. Additionally, when operating a table for youth, the game master should and must be willing to accommodate players. So often, youth are told how to behave, how to think, and how to speak. When at a table, it is integral for youth to be able to express themselves freely; in that, they need a facilitator who can respond with utmost patience and willingness to be kind. TTRPGs, at their best, allow for a certain amount of chaos, and there is the opportunity to grow in this chaos. Allowing the youth at our tables to respond to this chaos with mindful ideas and even by answering thoughtful questions facilitates this growth.

In these moments of growth are rare insights into how youth think and behave. It is a beautiful thing to see youth process in their own unique ways. As game masters, we must be willing to allow for genuine ideas that open up possibilities to our players. These possibilities often reflect the randomness and absurdity of life. Yet, we can move the story at our tables to avoid what might trigger our players. Part of securing a safe space for youth at our tables is a degree of communication that honors their response openly. As a GM who actively utilizes games to help players develop self-advocacy, I know the power of communication. Through the time practice of asking open-ended questions and even gently guiding new players, we can open up channels of active communication-based mindfulness. Youth are often more capable of making decisions than many think, and helping to develop these skills at a young age often helps to empower youth. The progress I have witnessed ranges from helping to know when not to interrupt others to better understanding how to respond to complex questions, learning how to articulate complex ideas, and even assisting peers through rough tides of emotions. These skills start with actively listening to the youth at our tables. As GMs, we are often seen as the end-all-be-all of the game. Yet, we must make sure that our players feel heard. Players who feel ignored will not participate. This goes especially for youth, and giving the youth at the tables the opportunity to respond to thoughtful questions and to ask their own is a big step towards this idea of being heard. Yet, as game masters, we must acknowledge this mindset and be willing to appreciate and value the questions and answers we are given because youth rarely genuinely invest in a Game Master who doesn’t at least put in that effort.

We must treat our players with dignity and respect. I have seen many Game Masters who try to assert their stories as only theirs, and I’m afraid I have to disagree with this mindset. The story being told at the table should involve and be crafted by everyone. Moreover, youth desire to be heard and valued and a great start to this mindset is to love the stories they want to tell. Despite the mindset many have, youth are creative, intelligent, mindful, and capable, not just of telling stories. When we focus on the potential the youth at our table have and provide a narrative focus that allows them to participate in the stories being told, magical things happen. Youth get to develop a world that is rich with their ideas, and over the course of months, they can build a universe of their creation. I know some are concerned that creating a sandbox world can be overwhelming; however, as game masters, it is our job to help guide our players. By clearly understanding rules centered around our gameplay, we can establish a well-defined boundary to which youth respond well.

Additionally, knowing where and how to apply our story content to the youth at our tables is integral to ensuring they are respected. Providing a safe story that avoids deep triggers, sexual content, mindful character interactions, and a reassuring tone that is not harsh with our players will ultimately help them own their story elements more. These aspects are meant to be applied in conjunction with our players, and when we can implement them with patience and great skill, youth will ultimately learn how to best develop stories in the future.

 In all we do, when we welcome youth to our table, it is meant to be a space where fun and joy should be present. This does not mean that we should not ignore how to use emotions in our stories positively and that we should not know how to utilize drama. However, it is paramount that we focus on the development of creativity and passion. Our players should have time to feel safe, heard, and valued; too often, youth are disrespected and diminished in today’s world. So, in the end, if we create and inspire stories that deliver moments of reprieve, we can craft a memorable and brilliant experience unlike any other. As game masters, this is one of the best things we can do for youth.

No Game Master should have to serve as a Therapist if that is not what they want; however, we should act to make the experience as brilliant as possible for our players. And in the end, we can welcome them to space where they grow, develop, and make friends that will battle beasts alongside them. In this, we craft, create, and inspire ideas that will often stick with our players, encouraging new players to take up their own stories and ultimately creating and crafting a generation of Storytellers.

In the end, running a game for youth is a complex and intricate act. However, when we act with empathy, focus, and respect our players can develop a community that enriches and empowers their needs and their community connections. As with many things in life, it all starts with a story and someone worth honoring those around them.

 If you have any interest in checking out more of my work, Check Out My Website Here. If you want to discuss options for the community or you have questions, email me at ndttrpg@gmail.com.  Additionally, if you have an interest in booking me for a podcast interview, Check out my MatchmakerFM Profile.

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