Advice needed: gaming with autism

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Tulpa Girl

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(hopefully this doesn't cross the 'no politics' rule)

As I mentioned in the 'What are y'all up to these days?' thread, one of the potential new players in the game I run for some local teens is, in the words of his friends, a 'high-functioning autistic'. He seems like a good kid, and potentially a good roleplayer. However, I'm not certain if my relatively loose approach to GMing is going to be a problem for him, as he seems to like rules that are very clear-cut. At times in play he seemed to be very risk-averse, and he often wanted to know what was the 'correct' choice to make.

So I was wondering if any of you had any experience in dealing with players on the autism spectrum, and if so if you had any tips or bits of advice to give to a Tulpa Girl who has no idea what she should be doing here.
 

Ravenswing

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I'll consult with my wife -- who's a special needs teacher and very well up on the subject -- but I've some thoughts to share, seeing as I'm likely one myself. (It's not that they diagnosed autism 50+ years ago, but I hit a lot of the buttons, and every single one of my brothers' children are autistic.)

For one thing, what you say heterodynes with a very common teen male characteristic -- a virulent hatred of being inept at a task, and even more of being seen to be inept. (I was into my thirties before a patient lover cajoled me onto the dance floor for the first time, for instance, and after my first wife jeered at the first pie I ever baked, it was a full 25 years before my second wife talked me through my second pie.) If you don't take risks, it's harder to screw up, and harder to be blamed for screwing up. So your player might thrive better as a second banana who isn't pushed into making decisions in isolation, or in a support role.

For another, while my own prejudices show here, and while it might not be feasible for you to do, a game system where beginning characters can be competent at key tasks would help. I remember vividly when my wife and I tried a d20 campaign where my character was knocked unconscious, and she failed nine consecutive First Aid rolls to get me up ... a string of failure that would have more than one poor autistic teen tossing the dice away and slinking out in a rage, and certainly had two veteran GURPS players hissing in fury.

Calibrate the risks involved. If the kid's risk-aversive, a campaign where major screwups lead to TPKs is not going to help. If the price of failure is that Salty Sam gains control of the ranch, and Sweet Sue is left in the dust with a carpetbag (as opposed to Salty Sam killing half the party off and the bandsaw cuts Sweet Sue in half), that's a setback, not FAILURE-YOU-SUCK-AT-THIS.
 

TristramEvans

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The truth is really that there isn't a single answer that is going to apply based on the person having autism - personality, ways of dealing and interacting, and the way they engage with the rules are all going to be based on the individual. What's going to be common, especially with younger autistics who have not learned to mask or assimilated coping strategies, is that they are going to be looking for a framework to base decisions on that isn't altering based on context clues that they cannot easily pick up on.

Imagine it this way - you live in a country where you don't natively speak the language, but you've learned it from Rosetta stone. So you can communicate in a straightforward manner "by the book", but all the cultural associations, sarcasm, humour, irony, double entendres, social expectations and traditional norms you are simply oblivious to. That is what it is like always, Every aspect of communication that people pick up and use instinctually - tone, composure, emotional resonance, implications etc, that are second nature to people, an autistic person is going to be largely completely oblivious to.

How much that translates into gaming is, however, again going to depend entirely on the individual.

It does not mean that they need to be rules-lawyery, completely "by the book" RAW gamers, at all. A few may be, but that's not dependent on autism - indeed, just as many neurotypicals are of that persuasion. A loose style of GMing is just as likely to be fine, and the most important thing is to not assume that they are not having fun (or assume any other emotion for that matter) because you will not be able to "read them" like other players. If you suspect or worry about something, the best approach is to directly ask with no ambiguity. They will appreciate bluntness and honesty over politeness.
 

David Johansen

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In my experience you have to take it easy on them and be clear about expectations. You also need the other players to be understanding about giving them a bit more attention. Player verses player is usually a bad idea. Probably not a good time to put a lot of fragile miniatures on the table as they're distracting and table flipping is a real possibility. I'm not a psychiatrist but lately I've had psychiatrists telling me my son's probably autistic. You need to spend about $2500 - $5000 for the testing (and that's here in Canada) so he's never been properly diagnosed. I've certainly gamed with a lot of kids with behavioral issues, one of whom I'm pretty sure is high functioning autistic, since opening my store. I've told the story about him looking at T5's social interaction table for a long time and then stating, "if only it was that easy"
 
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ScytheSong

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I had an autistic player back in the day. He really did want things to be made clear -- my favorite quote from him was, "There is no grey. There is only black and white at increasingly smaller scales." He flat out told the table that he needed to be told if he made a socially inappropriate suggestion, and we worked out a rule where any of the other players in the group could flat out tell him that his suggestion wouldn't work, and he would get a mulligan. If the mulligan didn't work we gave him a saving throw that (if he passed) would let me tell him exactly what social nuances he had missed, and how his character *actually* reacted based on the character's stats. Now, I will say that he told us straight out that his autism was just a hair on the normal side of involuntary commitment, and that we were part of his regular reports to his therapist, so he is definitely an edge case.
 

AsenRG

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I'll consult with my wife -- who's a special needs teacher and very well up on the subject -- but I've some thoughts to share, seeing as I'm likely one myself. (It's not that they diagnosed autism 50+ years ago, but I hit a lot of the buttons, and every single one of my brothers' children are autistic.)

For one thing, what you say heterodynes with a very common teen male characteristic -- a virulent hatred of being inept at a task, and even more of being seen to be inept. (I was into my thirties before a patient lover cajoled me onto the dance floor for the first time, for instance, and after my first wife jeered at the first pie I ever baked, it was a full 25 years before my second wife talked me through my second pie.) If you don't take risks, it's harder to screw up, and harder to be blamed for screwing up. So your player might thrive better as a second banana who isn't pushed into making decisions in isolation, or in a support role.

For another, while my own prejudices show here, and while it might not be feasible for you to do, a game system where beginning characters can be competent at key tasks would help. I remember vividly when my wife and I tried a d20 campaign where my character was knocked unconscious, and she failed nine consecutive First Aid rolls to get me up ... a string of failure that would have more than one poor autistic teen tossing the dice away and slinking out in a rage, and certainly had two veteran GURPS players hissing in fury.

Calibrate the risks involved. If the kid's risk-aversive, a campaign where major screwups lead to TPKs is not going to help. If the price of failure is that Salty Sam gains control of the ranch, and Sweet Sue is left in the dust with a carpetbag (as opposed to Salty Sam killing half the party off and the bandsaw cuts Sweet Sue in half), that's a setback, not FAILURE-YOU-SUCK-AT-THIS.

The truth is really that there isn't a single answer that is going to apply based on the person having autism - personality, ways of dealing and interacting, and the way they engage with the rules are all going to be based on the individual. What's going to be common, especially with younger autistics who have not learned to mask or assimilated coping strategies, is that they are going to be looking for a framework to base decisions on that isn't altering based on context clues that they cannot easily pick up on.

Imagine it this way - you live in a country where you don't natively speak the language, but you've learned it from Rosetta stone. So you can communicate in a straightforward manner "by the book", but all the cultural associations, sarcasm, humour, irony, double entendres, social expectations and traditional norms you are simply oblivious to. That is what it is like always, Every aspect of communication that people pick up and use instinctually - tone, composure, emotional resonance, implications etc, that are second nature to people, an autistic person is going to be largely completely oblivious to.

How much that translates into gaming is, however, again going to depend entirely on the individual.

It does not mean that they need to be rules-lawyery, completely "by the book" RAW gamers, at all. A few may be, but that's not dependent on autism - indeed, just as many neurotypicals are of that persuasion. A loose style of GMing is just as likely to be fine, and the most important thing is to not assume that they are not having fun (or assume any other emotion for that matter) because you will not be able to "read them" like other players. If you suspect or worry about something, the best approach is to directly ask with no ambiguity. They will appreciate bluntness and honesty over politeness.
I've got nothing to share as advice, but I'm going to keep that in mind. Because those two posts describes one of my players to a T as well, I just had not imagined it might be autism:thumbsup:.
 

ffilz

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Be patient, be prepared to explain things you don't expect to have to explain, let the player tell you what they need, let the player decide if the game you are playing is for them.

Consider that autism may be far more prevalent among gamers than you realize and you may already have player or two on the spectrum.

I think gaming can be a pretty low risk way for people on the spectrum to engage in a social activity.
 

FreeGamer

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If you suspect or worry about something, the best approach is to directly ask with no ambiguity. They will appreciate bluntness and honesty over politeness.
This is absolutely excellent advice. I've made a number of friends with autism over the years(I did not know when I met or befriended them, but it came out in conversation later), and valuing directness and honest is . . . I won't say universal, but definitely extremely common. It was present in all of the friends I had, which is likely one of the reasons I got along with them so easily - because I do, too.

So just ask him what is causing his decision paralysis. Perhaps let him know that failure can be part of the fun. How your character moves forward after experiencing a failure can often make the story more interesting. Things like that. Let him know that if he doesn't always make the most optimal move, or if he rolls bad, or whatever that things will be fine.

On a different not, many people with mental disorders and/or neurodivergence experience something called rejection sensitivity. Your friend might not, but a little reassurance that you actually want him there and want to make sure he's having fun, too, can go a long way towards making him comfortable with opening up to you about things. Feeling comfortable enough to do so is another common(though again, not universal) struggle.

Be direct. Be kind. And I wish you all the best in dealing with this situation. I hope you guys can work through this.
 

Voros

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Would you be able to provide a few examples of the behavior in question? I feel like that could less contentious and more productive than a discussion on metal illness.

Just a note that autism isn't a mental illness, not even technically a disability.

As for the OP, most of my experience is working with people with mental disabilities.

For people with mental disabilties what I've learned is it best to treat them like everyone else but be patient and ensure they're aware of what is approrpriate behaviour, give clear instructions, etc.

I'm less familiar with working with people with autism but work for an organization that runs a program for teens with autism to help them find employment. I've sat in on some training sessions and from what I've seen there is a similar if more detailed process of establishing expectations, etc.

Basically, remember that they're people and depending on where they fall on the spectrum they should be capable of adjusting their behaviour if made aware of it gently and kindly. Learning to do that when they are teens is really important for their long term development into independence as adults. If they have a caregiver you can also speak with them to get recommendations and give your feedback on their behaviour, particularly if it is disruptive.
 

3rik

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Only slightly on-topic, but I have a player who when asked tends to always go along with what the rest of the PCs do. He always seems to have trouble discerning the structure in his character sheet, as in he doesn't know where to look for certain stats. He also frequently misses the point of a conversation, responding with questions that are only tangentially relevant to the topic. He's also a compulsive nail biter to the point of eating his fingers. I have wondered if he's on the spectrum but AFAIK he has never been tested or diagnosed as such and seems to be doing OK in his day to day life (university degree in social geography, married, job, two kids).
 

TristramEvans

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Only slightly on-topic, but I have a player who when asked tends to always go along with what the rest of the PCs do. He always seems to have trouble discerning the structure in his character sheet, as in he doesn't know where to look for certain stats. He also frequently misses the point of a conversation, responding with questions that are only tangentially relevant to the topic. He's also a compulsive nail biter to the point of eating his fingers. I have wondered if he's on the spectrum but AFAIK he has never been tested or diagnosed as such and seems to be doing OK in his day to day life (university degree in social geography, married, job, two kids).

Those don't really sound like indications of autism, he just sounds a little slow
 

Black Leaf

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It does not mean that they need to be rules-lawyery, completely "by the book" RAW gamers, at all. A few may be, but that's not dependent on autism - indeed, just as many neurotypicals are of that persuasion. A loose style of GMing is just as likely to be fine, and the most important thing is to not assume that they are not having fun (or assume any other emotion for that matter) because you will not be able to "read them" like other players. If you suspect or worry about something, the best approach is to directly ask with no ambiguity. They will appreciate bluntness and honesty over politeness.
Yeah, I've had several players on the ASD and this really is the only advice I think I can give. Ask straight out without euphemism.

Aside from that, there's really no general assumption that can be made. I've know autistic players who hated anything non straightforward in their games. I've known those who loved playing high politics LARPs and were absolutely fine with being lied to in the context of a game. Gaming preferences are just too wide to draw any conclusions without asking.
 

Nobby-W

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Only slightly on-topic, but I have a player who when asked tends to always go along with what the rest of the PCs do. He always seems to have trouble discerning the structure in his character sheet, as in he doesn't know where to look for certain stats. He also frequently misses the point of a conversation, responding with questions that are only tangentially relevant to the topic. He's also a compulsive nail biter to the point of eating his fingers. I have wondered if he's on the spectrum but AFAIK he has never been tested or diagnosed as such and seems to be doing OK in his day to day life (university degree in social geography, married, job, two kids).
ADHD maybe.
 

SJB

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First time poster.

Daily experience of dealing with a fully diagnosed autistic person.

For the best insights I recommend the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and the publications of its director, Sir Simon Baron Cohen (cousin of Sasha). The Pattern Seekers even has some usable ideas about the invention of systems with relevance to RPG design.
 

ReluctantGM

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(hopefully this doesn't cross the 'no politics' rule)

As I mentioned in the 'What are y'all up to these days?' thread, one of the potential new players in the game I run for some local teens is, in the words of his friends, a 'high-functioning autistic'. He seems like a good kid, and potentially a good roleplayer. However, I'm not certain if my relatively loose approach to GMing is going to be a problem for him, as he seems to like rules that are very clear-cut. At times in play he seemed to be very risk-averse, and he often wanted to know what was the 'correct' choice to make.

So I was wondering if any of you had any experience in dealing with players on the autism spectrum, and if so if you had any tips or bits of advice to give to a Tulpa Girl who has no idea what she should be doing here.

I've got two players who are autistic.

The first is the fellow I affectionately refer to as my "tame rules lawyer." I've known him for nearly 20 years and in that time he has mellowed out about being VERY concerned about the rules. I have had a lot of outside-game chats with him where we've talked about what the rules are, why the rules are, and what the other players think of the rules. I made it clear that I valued his knowledge base and that my own ADHD meant that I couldn't possibly know the rules as well as he did.

I made a point to stress that our friendship comes first and that the game(s) we play are mainly about having a fun, regularly-scheduled activity where we can hang out. In pursuit of that I basically said, "Look, I suck at rules. You're good at rules. Help me out, here. When I ask you for a ruling, give me your logic and let me go from there." He's also impartial - there have been plenty of times when he's offered rulings that were detrimental to his own character. My whole group values his input.

The second player is still fairly new to role-playing. I knew that she played a lot of Dragon Age and Mass Effect so I try to model RP interactions from those games. I also use a lot of "failing-forward". Knowing that I'm not going to punish the party when her character does something "bad" she seems happy to see where the story goes. I also let her take the reins every now and then. Because she hasn't a lot of gaming experience she isn't stuck in any conceptual boxes - and when she has ideas about something in game they are usually new and challenging for me as the GM. And I LOVE that.

But don't ask her about rules. That'll shut her down in a heartbeat. I will often present her with a few options when it's her turn so as to smooth her roll in game.

I hope this helps!
 

Nobby-W

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[ . . . ]The second player is still fairly new to role-playing. I knew that she played a lot of Dragon Age and Mass Effect so I try to model RP interactions from those games. I also use a lot of "failing-forward". Knowing that I'm not going to punish the party when her character does something "bad" she seems happy to see where the story goes. I also let her take the reins every now and then. Because she hasn't a lot of gaming experience she isn't stuck in any conceptual boxes - and when she has ideas about something in game they are usually new and challenging for me as the GM. And I LOVE that.
I think there's a little insight here. Try to make the player comfortable with the idea of failing and allowing drama to unfold in a game - in the PBTA world, for example, by far the most likely outcome is 'success with consequences', and this is by design. Maybe also explain that the role of a GM is not adversarial and explain the 'fan of the players' concept.
 

ReluctantGM

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I think there's a little insight here. Try to make the player comfortable with the idea of failing and allowing drama to unfold in a game - in the PBTA world, for example, by far the most likely outcome is 'success with consequences', and this is by design. Maybe also explain that the role of a GM is not adversarial and explain the 'fan of the players' concept.

I love the idea of failing forward because it forces me to think outside the box. I enjoy circumstances that force me to think on my toes. And it is absolutely true that the players understand that I'm not out to get them. That does have the side-effect of the players being more comfortable with inventive tactics and taking interesting risks.
 

Nobby-W

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I love the idea of failing forward because it forces me to think outside the box. I enjoy circumstances that force me to think on my toes. And it is absolutely true that the players understand that I'm not out to get them. That does have the side-effect of the players being more comfortable with inventive tactics and taking interesting risks.

I think that's actually one of my favourite features of FATE. The invoke-against and compel mechanics are a great way to bribe paranoid players into coming out of their shell. To the extent that I've got a back-burner project of finding a way to do compels without all the baggage of the FATE point economy - i.e. in a form that can be easily retrofitted to other systems.
 

Nobby-W

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(hopefully this doesn't cross the 'no politics' rule)

As I mentioned in the 'What are y'all up to these days?' thread, one of the potential new players in the game I run for some local teens is,

That's very community spirited of you, a little ray of light in deepest darkest redneck country. How did it come about?
 

zanshin

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There was a discussion at the Tavern kicked off by a player with autism that might shed some light


Good luck Tulpa Girl, I am sure you are displaying sensitivity - otherwise why would you be looking to research your approach.

Edit - Oh and scooped by Polar Blues - should read the thread more closely. Apologies for that.
 
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Baulderstone

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First time poster.

Daily experience of dealing with a fully diagnosed autistic person.

For the best insights I recommend the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and the publications of its director, Sir Simon Baron Cohen (cousin of Sasha). The Pattern Seekers even has some usable ideas about the invention of systems with relevance to RPG design.
Welcome to the Pub, S SJB , and thanks for sharing those resources.
 

Nobby-W

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Yeah but shouldn't the Tavern be the more international venue while the Pub more typically British? What went wrong here?
We routinely do puerile humour and double entendre here. What could be more British than that?
I mean, we could add passive-aggressive snark, but we all know where that leads...
 

Ravenswing

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Kudos to everyone for being cool and sensible. I've seen some of these threads on other forums get nasty. Took me long enough to finally find the right forum.

My wife's take is to echo my post, but she'd like to know more about your GMing style, Tulpa Girl ...
 

Yeti Spaghetti

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This thread about people being obsessed with rules makes me think that I may be on the spectrum!

I feel bad whenever I miss a modifier for a roll, or mess up the order of things during combat, or anything else that isn't strictly by the book. I've gotten better about kicking myself over it, but I still strive to stick as close to the rulebook as possible, at least when it comes to mechanical stuff.
 

Tulpa Girl

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First off, I want to thank everybody for their answers and input. I confess I didn't expect as many people here to have direct experience with the topic at hand. It's not something I've had to (knowingly) think about up until now.

Ask straight out without euphemism.

The more I think about this, the more I realize I may have to actively and consciously try to rein this in. I tend toward a fair amount of euphemism and metaphor when GMing, not always consciously, often with a decent side dish of (gentle) snark and sarcasm.

I also use a lot of "failing-forward".

I'll probably need to make a conscious effort to include this in the various situations I throw at the players. It's not something I've thought much about until now.

That's very community spirited of you, a little ray of light in deepest darkest redneck country. How did it come about?

Short version is that about a year and a half ago, a co-worker of one of the players in our adult gaming group asked if I could possibly run D&D for his two kids and some of their friends. The longer version can be found here. Half of the initial group is now away at college, so we're looking at maybe adding a couple of new kids into the mix (I'm actually okay with running for smaller groups, but they're used to having a larger number, at least for the main game as opposed to the occasional one-offs I've run for them in the past).

My wife's take is to echo my post, but she'd like to know more about your GMing style, Tulpa Girl ...

I would say fairly loose in practice, old-school in approach (but not 'viking hat', as I understand the term), usually with a sandbox for the players to explore as they see fit. Death is certainly on the table, but some of the teens joking(?) aside about the potential lethality of anything I run ("You have to always pay attention in Tulpa Girl's game, otherwise you can die at any moment!"), I really am rooting for the PCs to succeed in whatever goals they set for themselves, and almost always give some form of warning when the really dangerous stuff is nearby.

Good luck Tulpa Girl, I am sure you are displaying sensitivity - otherwise why would you be looking to research your approach.

I just want to avoid doing something too incredibly stupid.

Doing something merely moderately stupid is most likely just a given.
 
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Nobby-W

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[ . . . ]
The second player is still fairly new to role-playing. I knew that she played a lot of Dragon Age and Mass Effect so I try to model RP interactions from those games. I also use a lot of "failing-forward". Knowing that I'm not going to punish the party when her character does something "bad" she seems happy to see where the story goes. I also let her take the reins every now and then. Because she hasn't a lot of gaming experience she isn't stuck in any conceptual boxes - and when she has ideas about something in game they are usually new and challenging for me as the GM. And I

[ . . . ]
I'll probably need to make a conscious effort to include this in the various situations I throw at the players. It's not something I've thought much about until now.

Compels, concede and invoke-against mechanics that encourage fail-forward baked into the system were the things that really sold me on FATE. They let you bribe the party to fail dramatically and help to pull paranoid players out of their shell. You could get a similar effect by handing out inspiration (if you use the mechanic) to players in similar situations for role playing the failure well.
 

Silverlion

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The next campaign will most likely be Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, which does have a Luck mechanic, so that should be workable.
I've dealt with a friend's Asperger-diagnosed son and other autistic players over the years. It is always a bit of a difficulty to deal with, so I wish you luck. I cannot give advice because as others have said it's a very varied situation which I've seen to be true.
 

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I've worked in an Learning Disability/Autism unit for years now, and one of my players is high-functioning with autism and asperger syndrome. He was unbearable as a teenager, but is much better these days. As an adult, he remains in the care of his parents, and his domestic skills are bad. However, he holds down a full-time job and can easily drive from one end of the country to the other without a care in the world, so his skill set is all over the place.

As a player, he's enthusiastic. If it's a sci-fi game, he's very enthusiastic. If it's a sci-fi game about robots, he's bloody orgasmic. His "thing" is collecting Transformers.

He likes precise days and start times. He tires and wants to go home the same time each session. Since reading is not his strong suit, he will not be well-versed in the rules initially. But once explained (clearly) he grasps them well enough, depending on complexity.

He tends to become focused on the weirdest things... Quirky traits, minor powers, random objects. He spent an entire Dark Heresy campaign going on about the explosive collar his guardsman wore. He plays dwarves a lot, and a running joke is his requests to use the stone cunning ability on just about anything.

I haven't adjusted my referee style, which is pretty traditional and "my word is law". I will pause play to explain things to him if needs be, and I am more patient with him when he has to make important decisions. Honestly, if I had to consider narrative nonsense and failing forward, I'd never referee anything. I keep my description of environment and activity as clear as I can, I use a lot of quickly sketched maps for combat. He handles it all just fine.

His behavior comes across as selfish to those who don't know him, and this carries into gaming. We joke with him about this "I'm okay, so everything is fine" attitude. He'll learn the rules he needs, he'll make notes relevant to his character, etc.
 

TristramEvans

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One of the biggest hurdles high functioning autistics face is learning to show interest in other people. It's an important mirroring tactic that tends to divide those that are able to get along independently and those unable to assimilate
 

3rik

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Those don't really sound like indications of autism, he just sounds a little slow
Like he's unable to process chunks of information properly and experiences choice stress as a result. The nail biting may be a nervous response to that? He's not unintelligent, though. Interesting. I'll see if I can adapt my communication style a bit, make it more step-by-step.
 

TristramEvans

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Like he's unable to process chunks of information properly and experiences choice stress as a result. The nail biting may be a nervous response to that? He's not unintelligent, though. Interesting. I'll see if I can adapt my communication style a bit, make it more step-by-step.

Could it be even social anxiety disorder? Just the pressure of being "on the spot" trip him up?
 
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