Druids and Wizards. Barbarians and Bards. Magical worlds of monsters, daring adventures, and mystical quests.
Since the 1970s, kids and adults alike have gathered around card tables (or now meetup online) to participate in the table-top role-playing campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). From the Dungeon Master (DM) who builds the world, creates the scenario, and guides the story to the players who construct the details of their characters and make decisions about how to react as each situation unfolds, D&D can be more than just a game. Many feel it has the power to tap into deep creativity and be the conduit to form meaningful friendships, especially in the autism community.
Nicki Gallop, an autistic D&D DM at AANE, began playing D&D in college and sees it as an amazing vehicle for connecting socially. “When you are in a close group of people who are dedicated to this fantasy world that you’re building in Dungeons & Dragons, it’s an incredible vulnerability to be open with your creativity,” she said. “It takes a lot of trust and love to foster such a thing in a way where you can create a world that is not only fun, but comfortable and, you know, mind expanding.”
She also sees it as a fantastic way to express yourself. “You might have a part of your personality that you’re not really able to express. D&D does provide a space where you can do that, “ Nicki said. “I think it is wonderful for autistic people because we are often so frustrated with the neurotypical normative stuff that we’re meant to follow. It’s one of the few places where we actually have enough control to create something that’s comfortable. Not only that, but then work outside of the parameters of what it is to even be a regular person. You can be an ancient warrior. You can be a horrible eldritch creature from beneath the sea if you want to. It doesn’t matter. You can really manifest exactly what you feel like.”
For Nicki, D&D provided an opportunity for tremendous personal insight. “I had a lot of help from D&D in figuring out my gender identity and I wasn’t doing that in real life. Before I transitioned, I had a massive beard, I dressed like a kind of dumpy dude. And, you know, then after playing a few girl characters, I was like, ‘Oh! Cool!’ It’s a safe place to express yourself and you can grow as a person, or learn from it, or whatever. It’s just great. “
Another D&D player saw D&D as a way to connect when he was younger. “As long back as I can remember, I’ve been into various fantasy things,” he said. “I technically first played when I was something like eight, but we didn’t know the rules or understand how to play. We roped my parents into doing it and they put up with it as best they could. I suppose I sort of got more interested in the world than actually playing. I guess mostly this resulted in unstructured play with my brother inspired by D&D. Even if you don’t actually understand the system at all, it can still speak to you.”
Now that he plays and DM’s as an adult, he finds creativity in coming up with new ways to create worlds and combinations of existing systems. “I’m having a lot of fun making up plots, making up monsters, and this gets into the mechanical aspect of working with the system. For example, recently there was a boss they fought where I combined a player class and a monster and pulled elements from one into the other to make a more interesting encounter than it would’ve been if I’d just gone with the vanilla option.”
One mom related how important D&D was for her autistic son when he moved to a new school at 13. “He was scared and didn’t have friends, and I signed him up for after school Dungeons & Dragons. Instantly he was really thrilled with it because it was a game revolving around his imagination. He has a wonderful imagination and sense of humor,” she recalled. “Right away, his personality came out where he could be sort of impish and provocative. It was a wonderful way for him to make friends.”
This mom believes it was one of the early steps that led her son to other creative pursuits. “I think that it opened up the part of his personality that makes him the happiest because he pursued music after that on his own,” she said.
Nicki Gallop feels strongly that D&D can often fill a void for autistic people. “Some of us don’t play sports or don’t find ease with doing stuff completely face to face, especially if there’s physical activity involved,” she remarked. “There could be immense comfort felt in the safety of one’s home or room or whatever. So given all of that, instead of forcing them to get uncomfortable, let them have a wonderful connection while being in that comfort zone. I think that would be just hugely therapeutic. And if not therapeutic, it is just a nice experience.”