Using TTRPGs to change the narratives around Autism

Working for a disability advocacy nonprofit, I've been paying a lot of attention to the narratives around disability, especially those around autism and neurodivergence. They range from viewing autism as a cautionary tale about vaccines to a beautiful way of engaging with the world, and everything in between. However, as I began looking around the internet at various narratives around disability, I found that I could fit them into four categories- delineated by if they came from disabled people or nondisabled people, and if they were fundamentally positive or fundamentally negative.

The four categories of disability narrative I came up with are as follows:

Tragedy narrative: This is a narrative that comes from nondisabled people, and views disability negatively. It is usually espoused by various groups not run by autistics, who view autism as a tragedy- A lot of autistics feel that Autism Speaks does this, as do a lot of hospitals who want to cure autism. Furthermore, a lot of political groups such as antivaxxers see autism as this horrible tragedy that will ruin your life, and use that as an excuse to promote their antivax agenda.

Trauma narrative: This is a narrative that is coming from disabled people, but still views disability negatively. This is disabled people talking about how their disability causes them problems, but, most importantly, it comes from their own experience, and oftentimes the frustrations vent from society not supporting them. For example, the person who tweets about how everyone thinks just because they can mask in person meetings are easy, but after each in person meeting they feel completely burnt out and exhausted.

Fun narrative: This is a narrative that comes from nondisabled people, and views disability positively. It's akin to Inspiration Porn, which is telling stories about disability to make nondisabled people feel better about themselves. You see stories like this all the time on social media about how an autistic kid loves to make cute little jewelry and is 'soooooo creative,' when the jewelry they're creating is on par with any other kid their age and the autistic kid just sees it as a hobby, wishing people would stop making such a big deal over it. Ultimately, it's rather pandering, and is more about selling a fun story than actually centering the experience of that disabled person.

Joy narrative: This is a narrative that comes from disabled people, and views disability positively. This is probably the most rare of all, as a lot of disabled people struggle to find joy in their disability, despite findings that show that finding a silver lining can build resilience. An example of a joy narrative came from my D&D group, where a NPC was sorting knives in a line, and the wizard cast an illusion of a knife, which was added to the sort, and when it was removed it messed up the whole sort. The kids were laughing and sharing how bad they felt for the NPC who had just had his sorting messed up, as they totally feel that. That's an example of autistic people sharing something about their disability that they can bond over, and it bringing joy to them.

So, needless to say, tragedy narratives are really bad. They cast disability in a light where people can never feel good about their disability. Fun narratives are also not so great, as they're turning people with disability into sharable content rather than humanizing them.

Trauma narratives are important, but it's critical to not only consume them without seeking silver lining. They are cathartic venting about a society that is against disabled people, where living is fundamentally traumatic, and being able to validate that trauma is very empowering and absolutely important. Trauma narratives also are very popular- I see tweets about trauma narratives blowing up constantly, almost as much as fun narratives. But due to the proliferation of trauma narratives and fun narratives, it creates this false dichotomy where the two most popular ways of seeing disability (at least in the circles I watch) are fun toxic positivity memes and sharing how awful you feel all the time. And that's not the best media ecosystem to engage with, because any positive views about disability end up being co-opted and tacky, which leaves pain being the primary authentic disability experience. And while, again, it IS important to validate trauma, it's also important to share joy.

And that's why I try to focus on the joy narratives. I'm fully aware of how traumatic living in a world designed for neurotypicals is. I have my own wonderful trauma history that is pretty damn prolific, featuring all kinds of bullying, assault, isolation, and cruelty based around my autism. Trauma narratives help validate that. But, I also grew up with a dad who told me that his ADHD, while it made him flunk math, helped him run a small business really well because there was always fun, interesting work to do. Hearing that silver lining from a young age helped me conceptualize my own disability in a positive light, and helped me believe that I did have strengths in my disability. This was an incredibly empowering thing to do, and it built a lot of resilience, because I was able to see my disability (which, back then, was an ADHD diagnosis) in a positive light and realize that despite the challenges, I had worth and could find strength within my weird brain.

So, remembering how much my dad helped me by sharing the joy of how his disability helped him run a small business, I try to share autistic joy as much as possible. And one really good space where I've seen this has been with my autism D&D social groups. We have a discord where the kids can regularly chat in an autism friendly space, and geek out about their special interests. A few specific things I've been able to use that promote autistic joy:

-Sharing special interests. Specifically, if a kid has a special interest, I find content relevant to that and share it with them, and get their opinion on it. Creating a space where geeking out and infodumping is welcomed is amazing, and is fertile ground for autistic joy.

-Incorporating special interests into the game. One kid had a special interest of calvary combat, so I started including that in our game, and he was able to come up with strategies to fight off horseback attacks.

-Creating autistic representation in the game. By including autistic characters, and letting them show off the neutral or positive features of their autism, while still having them be characters that are unique and interesting for other reasons, you create a lot of positive representation.

-Sharing your own neurodivergence. I'm autistic myself, as is my co-facilitator, and we are both open about our autism with the kids. That alone has created so much joy, as kids light up when they find out that someone they look up to is autistic. This is so important, because so many professionals they interact with will not share their disability. And as an aside, hiring autistic is a key part of this.

-Focusing on creating gameplay that is tailored for the group's neurodivergence. I don't include a lot of puzzles in my games, because a lot of the kids I play with don't really do well with puzzle gameplay. Same with combat. However, they enjoy fun role playing scenarios, or encounters where there are a lot of different ways for the players to engage, so each player can play to their strengths, rather than be forced into a box.

-Help them feel supported on any mechanical aspects of the game. There's kids in my group who know the rules inside and out, and kids who struggle to understand the rules. By helping the kids that know the rules feel empowered to help out, and making it clear to the kids who are struggling that these supports are well intentioned, it has created a situation where the kids can support each other, which is an incredibly powerful tool for developing future advocacy skills.

These are just a handful of ways you can use TTRPG groups to promote autistic joy within your groups. I hope you find this helpful. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @rollforkindness, and happy gaming!