How To Support Neurodiverse Players at the Game Table: From The Perspective of a Neuro Diversity Specialist 

This article by another writer is part of a parallel shared guest post between TTRPGkids and Thomas R Wilson, a Neuro Diversity Specialist. Thomas wrote this article for TTRPGkids, and Steph, from TTRPGkdis, wrote a review of Adventures in ADHD for Thomas’ site, which you can find here.

Managing the gameplay of Tabletop Role Playing Games (TTRPGs) can be an intricate and complicated task. It involves the decorum and control to listen intently, ask well-developed and insightful questions, and understand our players as the complex and creative individuals that they are. However, no matter how careful a game master is, situations can still overwhelm our players mentally, emotionally,  and even physically. If not properly addressed, this can lead to conflict, mental exhaustion, anxiety, and a deep sense of shame, among other adverse reactions, in both your players and yourself as the GM. Knowing how to support our players at this moment properly can be the defining factor between emotional fallout and a serene resolution.

Understand where your players are coming from

When working with the neurodiverse community, we must note that our players can be overstimulated simply by showing up for our games. This mentality may seem odd, but remember that TTRPGs involve various intimidating skills, from public speaking to math to even decision-making. These skills may seem straightforward to you, but the reality is that, to our players, this could be the most challenging thing in the world during gameplay. Even if it is just for a moment, we must honor these feelings, as shutting them down may just amplify their state. 

Let’s take a moment to walk in others’ shoes. While honoring your needs, I challenge you to think of a moment when you were scared, did not know if you could protect yourself, and felt alone and ashamed. Maybe there was a danger you wanted to run from or a friend that mocked you; well, those experiences can be felt just as strongly at our table by asking a triggering question. Now take a moment to honor how you felt when this moment ended, the relief, the calm, and the serenity of this situation when it was over. These are two very different emotional spaces, right? However you choose to walk through this mentality, they are undoubtedly vastly different states of human existence.

Be a safe place for your players

It is important to note that our players are complex and intricate, and they constantly experience the world in ways we can not fully understand. Because of that, acting with an open mind, an empathic heart, and genuine intention is crucial. When we add the skills required to play games, our players could be experiencing a flood of emotions. Because of this, we must remember that their reactions, behavior, and communication at our tables may not be intentional. It is too easy to forget that all youth may have difficulty communicating while upset. There may be barriers stopping them from saying what they want, and instead, they react emotionally. It is also important to note that youth need us to listen, even during challenging times. We must be willing to look past our egos and understand that mistakes happen. We are there to offer support, to create secure spaces, and to foster positivity. So, we must be able to be responsible with ourselves and our mindsets. Responding in anger, sarcasm, and even mockery can be the downfall of our games.

In this discussion, it is pivotal to acknowledge that no matter how smoothly the game goes for an extended period of time, it can eventually become challenging. This challenge does not need to be an issue. Responding with empathy, endurance, and a degree of authority will help prevent these situations from skidding out of control. 

When we have neurodiverse youth at our table, we must acknowledge that they often look to us to set the tone of our gameplay. This insight means how we react to negativity will be reflected at our table. Because of this, we must first aim to keep ourselves calm, to act with empathy to those who are upset, and to know that we can keep ourselves in control. Particularly with neurodiverse players, they can get more set off  when a group leader becomes emotionally charged. Nothing is as scary for them as the idea of someone they  trusted being proven untrustworthy. That can be the breaking point of the relationship between you and your players, and this distrust may also lead to the shattering of the group dynamic of the table. As a result, we must remember that the best way to honor the room’s energy is to ensure we keep tight control over our own.

Use your players’ ideas to build connection

Another crucial aspect of supporting our players is to remain willing to incorporate their ideas. Nothing can make our players feel valued at the table like utilizing their creative story elements. I have seen this factor turn a dull session into laughter and smiles. You do not have to use every idea throughout the session, but you should put effort into using some our player’s ideas to give them ownership. It should be noted that many people in the world have trauma from Game Masters who are overly controlling, harsh, and hostile. As facilitators, we should show the opposite behavior at all times.

As an example, suppose your players have a personal character arc or motive for their character that they want to develop. In that case, this can involve your players more deeply. There is a power in stories that our players become deeply invested in that can help them feel connected when they might otherwise struggle with this feeling. These stories keep them thinking, wanting to return, and watching for finite details. These story elements can help determine the whole group’s emotional connection and motivation. Additionally, it can make our players feel valued and important. It is true that in shared storytelling, the emotional dedication of all players keeps the story alive.

Understand how your players present differently

We must acknowledge that our players may be dealing with a lot on their minds. It is easy to forget that TTRPGS incorporates much information, and our players may only sometimes be able to track what we say. This momentary distraction does not mean our players are not listening or being disrespectful. We must be patient when details get lost. I have often found that youth, particularly neuro diverse youth, check out emotionally and mentally or may get spun up when they are wrongly accused of not paying attention. We want our players to listen to us, but we should know what listening looks like for different individuals. For some, this looks like eye contact, being able to repeat what you said, and making decisions quickly. However, this is a neurotypical presentation for paying attention.  For many neurodiverse youth, they do not present this way when paying attention. Listening can even look like two youths joking, chatting, and getting excited. It can also look like doodling, fidgeting, and dice stacking as players are trying to get anxious energy out or reach a level of stimulation that allows them to focus.  These behaviors may be seen as rambunctious and disruptive, but they may also be a part of intentional and oriented perception. So, it is integral that we understand how our players listen naturally and that it may look different for different people. We can support neurodiverse players further during gameplay by examining their behavior and acting with understanding and patience.

Foster trust and lay the foundation for later

All in all, supporting our players starts with us as their GM. Because of that, the youth at our table will ultimately look to us to set the foundations of their active play. When we try to support them honestly, they will grow more confident and secure in the space we craft for them. Ultimately, they will genuinely trust what TTRPGs can be in their lives and communities if they trust us as a leader in their games and someone who understands and respects their needs. 

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