Rethinking Autism Social Skills groups

As applied and specifically therapeutic RPGs come into vogue, more and more I'm seeing therapists and social skills coaches running 'Autism Social Skills D&D/RPG groups.' On a lot of levels, this makes a lot of sense. It's the most obvious application of RPGs in the therapeutic space, and RPGs are really, really well suited to doing this. Game to Grow recently released Critical Core which does a very good job of streamlining a D&D-esque style TTRPG for this end. And I think that all of this is a good thing. Work to reduce the stigma around TTRPGs and legitimize them as a valid form of therapy is huge, and I am so happy to see this movement taking off in my lifetime, having grown up with parents who banned me from playing D&D due to the satanic panic. (I still played anyway, just didn't tell them.)

However, I also feel that there needs to be a shift away from the idea of social skills groups.

The point of social skills groups comes from the medical model of disability, which states that disability is something that needs to be treated, like any other disease. While teaching people with autism how to interact in neurotypical ways (masking) is important, and can help them succeed in a society that values the ability to interact well with neurotypicals, I feel that's only half of the autistic experience.

Masking is incredibly taxing, and can lead to autistic burn out. It is not the natural state of being for autistic people. And the idea that autistics are socially deficient evaporates when autistics are allowed to engage with other autistics. For more on this, watch this TED talk by Jac den Houting. But with this in mind, we need applied TTRPG groups that lend themselves to the social model of disability, which does not state that disability exists solely as a medical problem, but as a problem with how society treats disabled people. The social model centers the status of disabled people in a more holistic way, and ultimately respects their personhood and dignity.

And as such, we need more applied RPG groups that are simply social groups. I approached management and asked that the groups I run be converted into 'advocacy' groups, and while that got shut down, they did allow me to strike the 'skills' part from the group, referring to them instead as social groups, which RPG groups fundamentally are.

Rethinking a social skills group as a social group means fundamentally changing the way I view the group. Instead of trying to look at teaching skills like teamwork, perspective taking, how to stay still and attentive during the game, and how to mask, I shifted it to be welcoming to all types of neurodiverse behaviors, while also working to be accessible, inclusive, and safe for everyone.

This is the biggest piece. This group's focus is now simply to create a space that is accessible, meaning anyone who wants to be here will be accommodated to the best of our ability, so long as they are being safe. It also is inclusive, meaning that we will work to make everyone included, so that they can normalize feeling included, and learn to advocate for that. Finally, safety is paramount, as without a feeling of safety and trust, the space is not welcoming.

So, in a lot of ways, gone are a lot of my therapeutic adjacent tools to help develop masking skills. Now, I am planning my groups in a way where I am asking myself, "How can everyone be truly included." I think about everyone in the group, and make sure that there are plot hooks that are accessible to them, that the content of the game is including them as a key part of the story and the group, and that there are safeguards in place to ensure that they feel safe and welcome. My role has shifted from being a facilitator to a mentor, and I am much happier for it.

I grew up lonely. A lot of autistic people do. Then, I met my D&D group, and I wasn't lonely anymore. And amazingly, I'm friends with that band of nerds to this day. Social skills are important, but growing up not lonely is even more important, and I'm glad to be working in a space where I can build one of the most important things for autistic kids- Friendship.

Hope this helped you rethink social skills groups, or at least got you thinking about adding a basic social group to your lineup if you're in that space. To discuss this more, hit me up at rollforkindness on Twitter.