When people think about therapeutic RPG groups, they're usually thinking of autism social skills groups. The idea of using D&D, a well loved game within the autism community, to teach autistics how to socialize better? It's obvious! It's amazing! It's widespread! It's an easy fit!
It's also rooted in ableism.
There's a long history of social skills groups being a way of enforcing masking, which refers to hiding one's autistic traits and showing neurotypical ones. Social skills groups might encourage eye contact, not stimming, and engaging in neurotypical social norms. While I was working for an intensive mental health service provider, I did a number of classroom observations and saw these norms being enforced extensively, with staff often requesting that autistic students make eye contact if they wanted to be listened to. This was normalized. Social skills groups serve as a targeted way to pathologize autistic ways of being, and promote the idea that if you want to be successful and make friends, you'd better learn how to make eye contact and stop stimming.
This is, in fact, very wrong. Autistics tend to do better with other autistics. There's less stress around the friendship, autistic friendships tend to be more activity oriented, and there's a better sense of understanding around autistic needs. That's not to say that neurotypical-autistic friendships aren't good, it's just that autistics are more likely to have an easier and more organic time building friendships with fellow autistics based on a shared way of being.
However, when children have been taught through years of training to not trust their autistic social selves, there's a lot of unlearning to do, and I think this is where the idea of teaching autistic social skills through gaming shines. Despite many gaming based social skills groups being focused around teaching masking, more and more, I'm seeing autistic therapists and group facilitators rethinking these groups to teach autism centered socialization, where autistic traits are not pathologized or stigmatized, and autistic kids can focus on building friendship in a way that works for them.
However, it's not as simple as creating a group and not being judgemental- there's a few key things that you need to do, and an awareness about autistic social skills that needs to be acknowledged.
First, you need to hire autistics to be running these groups, or at least being involved. If you are a neurotypical, and you're trying to teach autistic social skills, you're likely going to miss a lot. I always say if you're providing autism services, and you're not focusing on hiring autistics, you're not providing good autism services. So, hire autistic facilitators, and let them be your compass on how to run these groups in an autistic affirming fashion. If you can't find an autistic therapist, find an autistic self advocate. And give them all the accommodations they request, because a big part of rethinking this work is rethinking how you support autistics in your own life and work.
Second, rethink what social skills are. At their core, social skills are tools to engage with others effectively and form meaningful relationships and accurate communication. That's all they are. Lose all assumptions about conversational turn taking, small talk, eye contact, and other norms. Figure out how autistics, on a native level, engage with each other, make friends, and communicate effectively. It's different than how neurotypicals do, but it's not lesser, and to think that is to have an ultimately harmful mindset.
Third, it's critical to understand that a lot of autistics may have a lot of trauma around their autism, which can lead to internalized ableism. This can sometimes come out as bullying or judgmental behavior towards their fellow autistics. By setting norms that no one way of being is better, and hiring autistics as role models and facilitators, you can lessen this.
Fourth, rethinking your goals is critical. While masking is very important for surviving in a neurotypical world, by helping autistics create organic friendships, you're providing a strong sense of community. The idea that autistics must learn to act neurotypical constantly to survive ultimately perpetuates ableist ideals and norms, and makes autistics hate themselves. Instead, acknowledge that masking is important, but friendship and feeling loved is a basic human need that needs to be acknowledged. Hiring autistic facilitators can also help with this.
Finally, it's important to rethink autistic social skills. In my work, I've narrowed down three core skills that I've seen emerge through my groups as specific skills that build autistic friendship:
-Safety: This is a big one, and fundamentally refers to the ability to be safe around your peers. It could be as simple as knowing you won't get smacked, or it might be feeling safe to come out as queer, or not be triggered by specific noises, or feeling like you can unmask without being mocked, or being able to be vulnerable about your experiences without judgement. But feeling safe is the first step to being able to build healthy autistic friendship.
-Navigating incompatible neurodiversity: This one is the idea that sometimes autistics might have incompatible neurodiversity, but still want to be friends. This is a very important challenge, as it requires figuring out compromise and boundaries. Autistics frequently have their boundaries violated from a young age, because they are 'wrong' and their way of being justifies extensive violation of their boundaries. This results in either very lax boundaries or very strong, rigid boundaries, but in both cases, that sets the youth up for failure as an adult. Instead, by exploring ways to be flexible with some boundaries, and hard with others, you become an adult that is less likely to be victimized, as many autistics are once they reach adulthood. What navigating incompatible neurodiversity actually looks like in practice might be figuring out how a kid who stims loudly and a kid who has sensory overload can hang out together, or how someone with executive dysfunction and frequently cancels hangouts and someone who needs a routine schedule can make their relationship work. It's all about compromising, holding your own boundaries and advocating for them, and thinking outside the box. By creating a space where kids can navigate these on their own and come up with win win situations, you build their ability to navigate further challenges in the future.
-Advocacy: Being able to advocate from a place of neurodiversity is critical, as for too long, the conversations around autism advocacy have been dominated by autism moms and toxic organizations that seek to 'cure' autism. By understanding how to effectively advocate for fellow autistics, you create opportunities to build trust, which acts as fertile ground for building trusting, open, and genuine friendship, but also long term advocacy in adulthood.
So I want to close with the question of, why focus on autistic friendship as the goal of autistic social skills groups? The reason is this- Parents approach me and say they want their child to stop stimming or make eye contact, but when pressed for more info, they admit they just want their child to have friends. My students have told me that prior to my groups, they were lonely and depressed, but now as they have a friend group, they're no longer lonely and their depression has reduced significantly. Masking is great for being able to pass a job interview or survive at work, but being able to form healthy autistic friendships is how you avoid loneliness and find your safety net as you grow and survive. So many autism services focus on building job skills and getting housing, but without community, these things are at much higher risk of falling apart. By having an autistic friend group that acts as both a safety net and geeky community, autistics can grow up with a sense that they belong and are loved in a way that is never pathologized or seen as broken. And once they grow up with that mentality, they have the tools to start advocating for a better future for all autistics.