How video games kept me from social isolation while growing up autistic

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ByHaley Moss

When I was little and unable to speak, my dad and one of my adult cousins turned on the television alongside a black box I eventually discovered was a Sega Genesis. I would watch my dad control a blue creature who whizzed by onscreen and I would hear high-pitched dings to signal the collection of gold rings. The grown-ups navigated a brightly colored world on the TV, which sparked my curiosity. I was nonspeaking and diagnosed with autism — a developmental disability marked by social and communication deficits — when I was three. My parents and professionals who helped autistic kids would work on getting me to speak through playing with toys and games.

My silent fascination with video games must have been visible — when I was 4, I was mesmerized by my very own atomic purple Game Boy Color and spent hours playing Super Mario Bros. Deluxe and Pokémon Crystal. Mashing buttons to reach the next level or developing a strategy to become a top Pokémon trainer felt like second nature in a world I did not always fit into. I was newly verbal and leaving my special education classroom for a school with typically developing children when the Game Boy Color entered my world. Most of my speech was echolalic, meaning I often repeated things others said or I would hear. Because of this, I was unable to explain the joy I felt when the controller was in my hands. My happiness was unsurprising — research shows autistic children spend more time playing video games than their peers.

Gaming happens to be an essential piece of my backstory. When I left the special education classroom at the age of 4, my family and I had one primary goal: I had to make friends. I excelled academically, but friendship would prove to be an ongoing struggle. Social challenges are a hallmark of autism, so approaching someone new and finding common interests within the bounds of acceptable interactions can be intimidating and confusing for me. I was shy and initially learning neurotypical social skills felt similar to learning a second language. The elementary school girls around me played with dolls together; another girl who I thought looked more approachable eventually frightened me when she brought her hermit crabs for show and tell and let me hold them (I had sensory issues with how their legs poked my hands as they walked). None of the girls spoke about Pokémon or the pictures they drew in art class like I did. I wanted to be included, but I didn’t always know how to feel genuinely accepted.

Instead of chatting and playing dolls with the girls I hoped to befriend, I rescued princesses from castles in the gaming world I was deeply engrossed in, and I quietly drew heart people and portraits, or familiar characters like Spyro the dragon or the zooming blue creature I had admired years prior: Sonic the Hedgehog. Art was my safe place in school; decompressing with games was my quiet place at home after dinner. My interests in art and gaming led me to the first group of friends that accepted me — the boys. They thought I was cool. I was a girl gamer and now was using video games to be social in the real world, escaping the social isolation affecting 1 in 3 young people on the autism spectrum. My male friends wanted to talk Super Mario strategy at lunch and call me on the phone after school to play together. My elementary school best friend was also an artist who spent endless time in art class drawing our favorite video game characters. Autism is not a barrier to creativity, contrary to stereotypes that all of our interests and talents are in STEM fields I felt fully accepted because I was able to share my interests with peers.

As the technology changed and time passed, I also grew up, but did not grow out of what some thought might be a tomboy phase. I enjoy fashion and shopping while continuing to love a great action-packed console game. When my original Game Boy Color was obsolete, I enthusiastically welcomed its handheld successors into my life; a purple Nintendo 3DS currently rests on my nightstand at age 25.

The video game industry has also introduced characters like Symmetra in Overwatch, an autistic woman who is “one of [the game’s] most beloved heroes,” according to a letter from Jeffrey Kaplan, a director for Overwatch. It also turned out that the creator of Pokémon is also autistic. For me, gaming morphed from a deep special interest into a form of emotional development — a way to unwind and relax and calm down in adolescence and adulthood.

Those early drawings of Sonic the Hedgehog and the many characters that inhabited my screens helped me nurture and develop my art style — a whimsical, Japanese pop art- and anime-inspired look with a similar whirl of colors that enchanted me two decades ago. I began painting and coming into my own as an artist in my early teenage years. The sheer amount of fan art I’ve drawn stemming from Nintendo and Sega franchises prepared me for creating my own wide-eyed people and the culture of bold, cartoonish, and adored settings and characters those universes brought to life for me. While my most recognizable artistic influences may be anime or contemporary artists like Romero Britto, my very first influence and inspiration for my passion for drawing and painting came from the world of video games. Someone recently pointed out my work reminded them of Sonic the Hedgehog, and I couldn’t stop smiling and saying, “why yes, Sonic was the very first character I have memories of.” I filled many notebooks with drawings of Sonic and his friends during my childhood.

While I’m currently a casual gamer who will boot up my Nintendo 3DS to play Pokémon or Animal Crossing, or play a mobile game on my phone, I smile when I think about where I came from and how gaming laid a foundation of social acceptance and creativity for me. I’m grateful for the hours I’ve spent entrenched in stories, developing strategies, connecting with others, and making friends along the way. It’s time to celebrate the importance of a different form of connection and storytelling as part of our own diverse backstories. I do — after all, I am the main playable character in my life story.