The problem with "No phones at the table"

"No phones at the table!"

This is one of the most common rules I see as part of applied RPG groups, specifically ones that look at teaching social skills to autistic individuals. The notion that screentime is a problem, whereas face to face communication is good is very common in many mental health and social skills spaces, but this ignores a great amount of neurodivergent experience and needs. Instead, it's important to recenter focus on ways the players can engage on their own terms.

I am definitely guilty of the 'no phones at the table' rule, but it's also the rule I allow to be broken the most, only using it when it becomes a problem. For example, sometimes phones at the table allow for students to check rules, chat on the side without disrupting game, or stay self regulated. A student may need to take a quick break from the game to center themselves after a particularly taxing role playing encounter. Very often I'll see a student who is struggling with boredom pick up their phone to play a quick game instead of creating a dice tower (which creates a lot of noise when it falls.) Other times, I'll see a student who has just gotten through a major role playing sequence realize they need a break, but don't want to step away from the group, so the phone lets them center themselves. This is okay.

If you need to, perhaps look at using this rule:

"No disruptive phone use at the table."

This runs counter to what a lot of people may think might be appropriate social skills education, but it also highlights a need for centering the focus of the game on the needs of the neurodivergent individual. D&D, and various D&D-esque games, are by far the most common games used in social skills groups (and applied groups altogether), despite being games that can have some pretty big problems for neurodivergent players.

D&D might be a great game for an autistic youth who likes complex systems, structured communication, and has a special interest in esoteric RPG mechanics. However, for a neurodivergent individual who struggles with attention, has reading comprehension difficulties, and has a difficult time following complex and context specific cues, the game is a lot more challenging.

And that means that the applied GM needs to do everything in their power to make it accessible and fun, while also accepting that they are going to engage with it in the way that is best for them, and that's okay. It might not be where you (or the parents) want them to be, but so long as you can help them grow in a direction that both of you consider to be growth, then it's a win.

For example, if you have a student who struggles with the rules, and has barely filled out their character sheet, but is just happy to be part of a story, let them enjoy it. Perhaps find a way for you or other students to support them in filling out their character sheet. "But he needs to fill out a character sheet to play!" No, he doesn't. That's ableist gatekeeping. You need to find accomodation for him to meaningfully play without the ability to fill out a character sheet. By modeling this, you teach a very powerful lesson- Accomodation exists. Inclusion can be built into recreation. Teach how to ask for it, and how peers can support. That is what builds advocacy skills.

But ultimately, what matters is how you can help your students engage in a way that is best for them to engage. That's where growth and development happens best, and by allowing them to come to the table on their own terms and be supported and celebrated in this, you build the trust and engagement necessary to focus on meaningful, long term growth.

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