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Close crop in of a hand holding a multi-side gaming die. There is a pile of different dice sitting on a piece of paper that is used to keep score. In the background, there are figurines of different magical-looking characters, and various round playing pieces. Illustration: Gica Tam for Polygon

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How autism powers my D&D

D&D allows me to connect with my friends in a way I couldn’t before

In my world, there are flumphs that speak with gestures and colors instead of words. Owlbear guardians travel with inexperienced adventurers, and people can evict spiders from their homes with smooth negotiation tactics. It’s a world inherently amicable to someone interested in social justice, art, and mythical creatures.

Our story takes place on the western coast of Rogun, a country that only exists in my weekly Dungeons & Dragons campaign. In the past year, I’ve spent countless hours with my friends, creating a world that is habitable for my existence. When modern society feels hostile, I can find comfort once a week, leading my friends through a narrative where all of my quirks fit.

As a nonbinary person with autism, I have plenty of so-called “quirks.” I’m a daydreamer who often carries a sketchbook to record story ideas, character drawings, and thoughts that I don’t always feel safe sharing. If I’m overwhelmed, I can stutter or accidentally say thoughts out loud that don’t contribute to the conversation, which forces me to clam up and fall silent for the rest of the evening.

A colorful battle with a beholder letting loose with his eyestalks.
Key art from the upcoming D&D-themed set of cards for Magic: The Gathering.
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Fantasy has the incredible ability to accommodate the most unique parts of ourselves and welcome them. However, I never had found as much of a home in fantasy as I did when I started playing D&D. My first character was a halfling death cleric with a mummified squirrel as a familiar. Charisma was her lowest stat, and I loved that she was more comfortable talking to dead people than her friends in the party. Her social weaknesses were vital to her character and served as a place where I could find meaning for my own awkwardness.

When players build characters, it’s natural for them to exaggerate something about their personalities. Whether you’re playing a dumb-but-strong barbarian, a bookish wizard, or an extroverted minstrel, at the end of the day, you’ve probably created a character who wouldn’t likely be considered “neurotypical.” That’s another part about why D&D is so exciting for people with autism — we can see ourselves in it.

After playing for a few weeks, I transitioned quickly from playing to being our group’s Dungeon Master (DM). My friends thought it was a natural progression, as I’m a novelist and writer by trade. However, I don’t think any of us realized the validation I’d get from taking on such a role.

Experts have found that my experience as an autistic person playing D&D isn’t an isolated incident. Many autism support programs include some measure of role-playing to help develop interpersonal skills. People with autism often benefit so much from role-playing that a new game, Critical Core, has been designed as a social intervention tool for children and adults with autism.

Role-playing games like D&D are valuable for neurodivergent people because they bring structure to a relatively unstructured and chaotic experience — social interaction. While a quest or dungeon crawl may seem somewhat confusing to a casual viewer, there’s a subtle yet solid narrative thread binding the story. That thread is maintained by a trove of rules that govern every scenario. People with autism don’t have to worry about misunderstanding sarcasm because an insight check can more or less reveal the speaker’s intentions. Better yet, a player doesn’t have to worry about being suave or convincing to try and manipulate someone. While my real-life charisma score is low, my tiefling warlock almost always succeeds on his deception rolls.

Those precise guidelines for social exchanges make D&D almost perfect for building relationships without the confusion of real-world interpersonal dynamics, where vague concepts like subtext and tone reign supreme. Even more importantly, a character-driven narrative helps people with autism explore and celebrate traits that might be harder to see in day-to-day interactions.

Speaking face to face isn’t something I’m particularly great at. I tend to look away as I struggle to maintain eye contact, and when I get tired, I often stutter. As it becomes harder to express myself, I get self-conscious and often shut down.

However, I can seemingly talk for hours when I run a gaming session. I’m able to follow narrative twists and turns with an agility that I rarely have outside of the game. While each session is mentally exhausting (as it is for even neurotypical DMs), I manage to keep pace with six other players. These days, when I feel overwhelmed at parties or in loud settings, I remind myself that socializing is a skill I’ve developed. D&D has helped me build an interpersonal toolkit and social stamina that I never had before.

That’s not to say that gaming is without its faults. I’m usually anxious in the hours leading up to a game where the nebulous idea of “session prep” consumes my thoughts. Building encounters and puzzles my group may never see is usually more stressful than exciting. Every time I end a session, I typically believe my group hated it, even though they keep coming back, even after a year of gameplay.

Despite the negatives, D&D is one of my favorite activities. However, there is one key benefit that reigns over all else. The thing I love more than the creativity, the social practice, and the hilarious moments surrounding the quest for a blue mushroom is that D&D allows me to connect with my friends in a way I couldn’t before I started playing.

As a person with autism, the fantasy world in my head is often more exciting than the world my friends live in. Thanks to D&D I finally have a way to share it with them.