Updated: May 17
Everyone's needs are different and understanding someone’s needs takes time and cannot be fully understood from a written survey response. The best way to support neurodivergent players at your table is through good communication. If your players are kids, then the parents of your players will often be incredibly helpful by pointing out triggers to avoid or ideas to lean into. Of course, it's still important to talk to kids themselves. If your players are adults then talk to them directly, but realize this could be a challenging conversation. You need to understand that neurodivergent people face ableism all the time so they may not initially feel safe enough to discuss their needs openly.
Can you put yourself in the shoes of an autistic person? I have trouble doing that, but I read an interesting description from Dr. Raffael Boccamazzo who is the Clinical Director at Take This, a mental health advocacy organization. He described autism as “being on a different operating system” from the rest of the world. He says that autism is like running Linux in a Windows world. “I’m forced to try to speak Windows in order to function in a world that sees me as a broken version of normal instead of simply operating differently.” Here is another cool 1 minute video which might help in understanding.
What do you do to make sure your neurodivergent players have an amazing experience at your gaming table?
1) Communicate Better: What does it mean to “communicate?” Non-confrontationally ask two questions, and you will mostly check off the communication box.
a. What is it that you need?
b. What is it that is going to work best for you?
Then, and this is important … listen. What should you do differently now? Can you be reflective enough to know what you should do to better to support your player/s?
We use “Stars and Wishes” as our communications tool at Adventuring Portal. Stars and Wishes is a simple tool that is great for games with kids and adults. At the end of the game, every player needs to give another player a “Star” or compliment. Say something cool that another player did. Then, every player needs to provide a “Wish” – something they would like to see in their next game. This is an excellent feedback tool that will improve your game. As a bonus, it helps shift the kids’ focus from themselves to the whole group and helps them understand more of the group’s goals. However, nothing is better than making adjustments and being responsive in the moment. Have a player that unexpectedly expresses an aversion to Giant Spiders? Just swap out for another enemy at a similar level!
2) Set your norms and expectations before you start your group’s adventure through a planned Session Zero. Explain what kind of adventure you intend to run. Make sure everyone is on the same page with their understanding of break schedule, the use of safety tools and turning your video camera on or off if you are playing online. Running a Session Zero is how everyone will know that they will be included and heard which makes playing less overwhelming. This is also the time to define what will be included and what will not be included during your game. Also this is when you take the first planned step to promote group unity through the mutual creation of your back story. The shared creation will answer the basic questions - who are we and why are we here? There are no unspoken rules are your table! Make sure you slowly go through every house rule you might have. (For example, at Adventuring Portal we have 4 house rules: no evil aligned characters, no player-vs-player fighting, turn your camera off when you are eating and we use a Social Turn Order to decide who gets to speak when.) This is excellent as it avoids the Hunger Games Cornucopia opening scene feeling - when everyone rushes in to get the starting bonus items. By using a Social Turn Order no one has to rush to speak.
3) Think about issues around lights, smells and sounds. How can we mitigate these issues? Our response is to turn off any background mood music that we play during the adventure which helps with sensitivity to sounds. Technology is slow so we do not have to deal with smells online. However, D&D is a storytelling game, so in our descriptions we will dial down the detailed descriptions around smells. Light is also something that we do not deal with so much while online gaming because our players are comfortable at home with their own setups. If you just stick with the thought, “how do I not perpetuate trauma at the table” you should be moving in the right direction! One of your goals should be to start to know what makes your players anxious, frightened and calm.
4) We stick to routine. Most neurodivergent players thrive more with structure which helps with regulation of attention. D&D is thought of as a “go anywhere do anything” game that is full of improvisation and surprise. True, but the game is also one of strict routine and structure. The Dungeon Master (DM) describes a scene/situation, then the players state what their character’s intentions are, dice are rolled and then resulting dice numbers dictate the way the story moves. Then repeat again, and again until you as the DM feel like you have presented a great beginning, middle and end of a storied adventure.
5) Encourage standing. No one likes to sit too long … sometimes you gotta stim. We encourage standing and moving around. Our break time is standardized so players know what to expect. Issues revolve around keeping the video cameras on mostly as we humans tend to be shy and find safety in anonymity. We ask for cameras on as video truly adds to the gaming experience.
6) Celebrate failures. In games, if you never fail, it gets boring fast. In real life, failure sucks and is embarrassing. Learning how to cope with failure is important. How do you learn how to not be embarrassed? It is not easy right!?! Playing D&D provides a safe platform to experiment, make mistakes and learn to overcome some degree of anxiety around failure / embarrassment because in D&D, there is no winning or losing. Failing in D&D often makes the game more interesting and fun.
7) Encourage experimentation. When you take away winning and losing in a game, there is a huge latitude of game play that opens up. D&D players can experiment with different races and classes. They choose gender, background, traits, strengths, weaknesses plus a whole lot more. There are almost too many choices. Not to mention everyone has a choice as to role play – as much or as little as you are comfortable with.
8) Teach your players how to ask for help. Took me years to learn how to work well in a group and or ask for help. I was raised on cutthroat games like Monopoly and Clue. I was raised to not ask for help. Playing D&D was the first cooperative game I had ever played. Suddenly, everyone at the table was naturally predisposed to want me to succeed! So different from the Highlander, “There can be only one!” attitude. Accepting, cooperative environments are great spaces to learn to ask for and volunteer help.
9) Silence is golden. As a teacher, we are taught to wait a looong time for answers from our students. People take different amounts of time to process information and respond. With this in mind, you probably need to be more comfortable with silence. Stop yourself from providing answers. Allow space for your players to respond. Silence falls under the combination and participation umbrella. Does your image of what good participation looks like come from watching people play D&D online via YouTube? If yes, then please know that those D&D streams are done mostly by professional theater actors, comedians and voice actors.
10) Use as many tangibles as possible. We run games online. For us, we use online tools that kind of fall under this category. We use online maps, handouts, dice, drawing tools, as well the option to have a printable character sheet. This character sheet serves as a great tangible item to mess around with, look at, doodle on, and use as a learning tool. When you play D&D you can either use maps or something called “Theater of the Mind” which is when there are no maps and we just use our words to describe everything. We use Theater of the Mind sparingly if at all.
11) Reward good behavior. D&D has an exciting leveling up system that provides more strength and skills with each new level. While you do not level up each game, it is always something to look forward to. We reward good behavior by being generous with our magic items. Displeasure and bad feelings happen when one player gets something and others do not. While it’s easy to fall back on “You didn’t find anything this time, but I bet next time you will find a cool item,” it is better to simply increase found loot. 4 players? Then 4 magic items discovered. 5 players? 5 magic items found.
The best way to support neurodivergent players at your table is to communicate better. Up your empathy game. Listen. Be ready to make adjustments on the fly. In the back of your mind always have some questions repeating - Am I helping facilitate the fun? Am I doing something that is triggering? You don’t have to master Linux, but you should know some basics. And frankly, incorporating the 11 nuggets above will make your game more fun for all players. 😊
player art: Chipmunk Party
Paul Lazrow, is the founder and one of the Dungeon Masters at Adventuring Portal, an online service that focuses on running live-guided fun, safe D&D games for kids. Find out more at AdventuringPortal.com.