Tips for Running Autism TTRPG groups

I recently wrapped up my final session of my D&D autism community building groups for the quarter, and I asked the students for feedback. It was largely positive, but when I framed it as ideas on what other GMs should do, they were able to provide a lot of really good insight into what worked for them. I should clarify that my groups aren't traditional social skills groups- as addressed here, but rather focus on building autistic community and friendship. They picked up on that, and really appreciated something that met them where they were, rather then trying to force neurotypical traits on them, like so many other therapies and social skills groups they had encountered over the years.

I've recently been doing a lot of talks on this work, but I think it's more important to focus on the voices of those actually in the groups and what they think works, so here's their feedback on how to run an effective autism community TTRPG group.

-Maximum autism. This came up several times- they liked how unapologetically autistic the group was, and how it sought to normalize and celebrate autistic traits. One student stated that it was so fun to be in a group with a bunch of other autistics and see how weird they could make the game by fitting in special interests and whatnot. One student described it as 'Unhinged in the best way.'

-Don't force organization. Allow the kids to embrace 'autistic chaos' by allowing them to talk in whatever way they want- while also enforcing a 'hands' system as needed where they raise hands to talk. This is a bit of a balancing act, but they thought I did it well, although the criticism I did get was sometimes the cross talk was a bit overwhelming, so it's still a work in progress.

-Allowing mistakes. They stated that this was a safe place to make mistakes, and they trusted me to treat them kindly and gently if they screwed up.

-Do an ongoing campaign. They connection to a longer storyline allows for more interesting engagement, and helps new players fit into a larger world, which helps them develop their characters and feel like they can dive into the community. (Having a wiki helps.)

-Providing a discord server for talking outside the group. This helps build community and friendship, as well as a healthy model of what good online socialization looks like. A lot of kids have had really awful online experiences, and having a safe social space online is really appreciated.

-Saying 'Yes and' or 'Yes but'- letting them roll with their weird ideas and finding ways to meaningfully tie them into the story.

-Going full in on the rule of cool. There was a point made that with an autism group, you either need to go hard on RAW (rules as written) or rule of cool, and I've chosen the latter, and they love that.

-Making sure everyone has spotlight time. They noticed that I try to include each character in a session, while also making it so they feel welcome in any scene, but never forced into the spotlight. It's a balancing act to make the scenes accessible without being forced. They also noticed that I always have something in the plot for each character to engage with that's relevant to them and overtly designed to give them an opportunity for time in the spotlight.

-Involving previous characters. The fact that I bring up retired characters as NPCs is greatly appreciated and helps them feel like they have a part in the world.

-Be a good/experienced GM. They noticed that I am a very good GM, and one student stated that you should have at least run 3 campaigns before trying to do this sort of work with a bunch of autistic teens.

-Don't force vulnerability. One student brought up that she was tired of all these groups where they overtly tried to make it therapeutic by forcing them to talk about their feelings, even within a D&D context. They pointed out that it made them shut down because ultimately they don't like being vulnerable around new people- it doesn't feel safe. Instead, they stated that by building a really safe space and leading by example, they allowed organic vulnerability. They stated that they felt more safe being vulnerable and talking about their feelings because I never forced it, and instead let them know that it's safe to talk about it in a genuine way, while maintaining healthy boundaries around their feelings.

-The ability to yell at real life problems in a game. One of the students pointed out that a lot of the stuff in my games has real life parallels (For example, there's a corrupt merchants guild that ended up resembling Amazon) and being able to fight them within a game is incredibly cathartic, as they feel very helpless in the real world with the way society is going.

-Allow kids to get a bit off topic, while also managing it before it goes too far. One student said he loves when we end up going down little rabbit holes, because he loves those conversations- letting autistic social traits flourish is huge.

-Puns. They loved torturing me with puns, and all the little inside jokes and whatnot.

I think a lot of this comes down to a few core pieces- Embracing autism, not forcing neurotypical focused therapeutic models, and being a good GM. I encourage others who are getting into this field to really think about this feedback, and how you can incorporate it into your own campaigns. In this work, autistic voices need to be central in how we move this field forward. Nothing about us without us.