Minecraft Saved My Son

Raising Kids

A devoted dad reveals how putting a controller in the hands of his autistic child was the ultimate game changer for their relationship.

By Keith Stuart

I first let my son Zac play a video game when he was 3. He'd been having a fractious day—and by "fractious," I mean he'd been screaming for hours, occasionally throwing a plate or slamming a door to vary the mood. This was how a lot of our time together went up until that point; the only thing that calmed him was having a bath—sometimes he had three a day. My wife and I knew we had to find something else that would soothe him, something that was at least partly educational, something that didn't use up all our hot water.

From the day he was born, it was like living in the eye of a storm. Zac cried a lot as a baby and never slept through the night. As he grew into toddlerhood, he fretted over food, shoes that could never be tied tightly enough, clothes that felt strange to him, even going outside. At 3, he had only a handful of words, so we had to guess what was wrong. Which snack tasted weird? Did he want another bath? There were so many upsets that some days they seemed to merge into one long mega-tantrum.

Looking back, it's so obvious that the cause was autism—he was scared and frustrated, and everything felt uncomfortable, loud and chaotic to him. His senses struggled to make sense of the world, so he struck out at it, screaming and crying. His mother and I spoke with Zac's doctor about what we saw, but it wasn't immediately clear to any of us what was going on. Meanwhile, it seemed like others were judging us. At one point, our neighbor brought over a letter and handed it to my wife. We appeared to be failing as parents, she wrote, and everyone on the street had noticed. We moved three months later.

But on this exhausting day, in my small attic study, I put Zac on my knee, handed him a PlayStation controller and cued up a sweet game called LittleBigPlanet. The main character, Sackboy, is an adorable cloth doll who smiles and waves as you play. And if you tilt the controller, Sackboy nods his head.

When I showed this to Zac, he smiled. And then giggled. Before long, he was almost breathless with laughter—the thrill of seeing his own actions reflected on the screen appeared magical to him. His joy lit up his face. I called my wife upstairs, and as we all laughed together, we forgot how things usually were and saw the playful child inside him. The transformation was amazing.

After that, I decided to try other games with Zac—I review video games for a living, so there are plenty around the house. He loved Burnout Paradise, a racing game that let him explore computer-generated streets, then smash up his car and get it instantly fixed at the garage. It made me realize he was thoughtful and curious about things and how they worked. But in the real world, there was too much going on—too much noise, too many things happening at once—for him to process it all. This is the chaos most of us filter out without even realizing it.

When Zac and I played games, he was in a controlled environment he could explore at his own pace, in his own way. Video games were helping him—and me—discover who he was and the things he preferred, ideas he didn't have the ability to express in words. But while we played, I could observe the things he did; the way he always picked the same cars or characters; the way he liked to complete small repetitive tasks he'd devised himself. I was getting to know him in a new way. I was finally seeing who he was.

Back in the eighties, when I was young, my dad and I used technology in a similar way. We'd sit together and write programs for my old Commodore 64 computer. We were terrible at it, and they hardly ever worked, but that wasn't the point—my dad simply wanted to play with me, and technology was something we could experience together as equals. He died 10 years ago, but it felt right to carry on that enthusiasm with my children. In addition to giving me insight into Zac's mind, it felt like a way to link my sons——Zac and his little brother, Albie—to my father.

Still, even as I was thrilled to see Zac grow and discover himself through video games, autism hovered on our horizon like a dark cloud. We'd mentioned the possibility that Zac had autism to family doctors when he was a toddler, but they said it was too early for any kind of diagnosis. We took him to speech therapy and to have his hearing tested, trying to figure it out for ourselves. In nursery school, Zac didn't play with the other kids. Later, in kindergarten, he would flee to a corner, staying as far from the noise and activity as he could. Meanwhile, his younger brother flourished, doing all the things Zac hadn't. When Zac was 5 and Albie just 3½, they had comparable vocabularies, but Albie asked questions, engaged in chats and actively sought information. He was sociable and confident and, unlike Zac, he had no trouble sleeping.

But Zac and Albie were definitely equals when they played games; Zac understood how things worked very quickly, and when we played puzzle games, he mastered them right away. I found this fascinating, but I was also frustrated—these games, while revelatory about how Zac's mind worked, didn't allow him to express himself any more effectively.

That all changed with Minecraft, which I introduced him to when he was about 6 and still had no official diagnosis. I had a feeling he'd like it—it's a bright, nonthreatening world full of animals and silly things to do—but I had no idea how much its digital universe would help Zac navigate his scary real one. Minecraft is a lot like playing Legos onscreen. It allows the user to build, mine for gold or explore hills and valleys as the sun rises and dips in the clear blue sky. It is quiet, and it allows you to create very exact and interesting things and then blow them up. Zac was instantly hooked. This was a game seemingly designed for his needs. He was in total control—we could even switch off the enemies.

It was beautiful to see my son, usually so guarded, careful and anxious, being loose and creative, an attitude that began to edge over into real life. Even though he played only an hour or so every other day, he made progress quickly. After a few weeks, Zac started drawing more and made up stories about the game, and his vocabulary widened. But most important, in Minecraft he was on par with the other kids, just as talented as his brother. I've always believed that video games are a good influence. The right ones can bring families together, teach us interesting things and make us think in new ways. But what I learned with Zac is that games can also offer a form of freedom for kids who find the world difficult and confusing.

By the time Zac was diagnosed by doctors on the autism scale at 7, my wife and I had already come to that conclusion. In fact, we'd even accepted it. It may sound like an odd thing to say, but I think Minecraft made it easier for us to do that. My son now had a safe space where he was happy and focused, and we saw that he could comprehend systems and play with other kids. That's part of how we knew he would be OK.

Zac is 10 now. He's in a mainstream school, but he's behind and still finds it difficult to communicate. We don't know exactly what the future holds for him, but we do know he is bright and funny—he has ideas and an inner life rich with possibilities. Once upon a time, I put a controller in his hand, and he found a place where he felt whole and free. I feel confident that one day he will find that in the real world, too.