Friday, January 14, 2022

Gaming On the Spectrum: How Video Games Helped Me Overcome My Asperger's

When I was little, my parents would take me to the park.  There, they would put me in the sandbox so I could happily play with my toys.  Instead, I freaked out and cried, even though they were sitting a few feet away.  I was also taking longer to learn to walk.  Worried my motor skills were out of flux, they took me in for electroshock therapy to make sure I was okay.  These two incidents made them realize their son was different.

I have Asperger's.  Asperger's is a form of autism best described as a "quirky" normal.  Characteristics include having specific interests, knowing a lot about certain topics, trouble making eye contact, and difficulty determining a person's emotions.  Although the DSM-5 lumps Asperger's within the autism spectrum disorder, Asperger's affects roughly 44 million people.

Asperger's made my life interesting and difficult.  When times were tough, video games were there.  Since I'm 25 years old, I think it's time to open the book on who I am and why.  I'll discuss how Asperger's affected me growing up, how it's affected me as an adult, and how gaming has played a part in all of this.

I had a normal childhood.  I spent a lot of time outside, I played with friends, and I participated in various activities like sports and the Boy Scouts.  I was also hyperactive.  Imagine putting a kinetic ball of energy into a room with no exits.  As the ball bounces around, it gains momentum, becoming faster, more chaotic.  Because of my energetic nature, my parents tried to keep me occupied by signing me up for different things.

In school, I did well, but my attention span ranged between focused and unfocused.  Teachers noted on my report cards how I was smart but easily distracted.  Other times, I'd say or do something I thought was funny, but instead led to me getting a red card for bad behavior or a trip to the principal's office.

Still, I was an extremely outgoing kid, but that changed when puberty kicked in.  They say being a teenager is tough.  For me, it was like playing a game on impossible difficulty.  My energy level went 100 to 0.  I was shy, only talked when necessary, and kept to myself, especially during my sophomore and junior years.  My grades were good enough, but my parents found it challenging to get me to do my homework or study for a test.  The reason for my turnaround from happy go-lucky to shy guy was because of stepbrothers.

During the fifth grade, my dad remarried to a woman with two boys, one a couple of years older and another around my age.  I was initially excited, but once we moved in, life became hard.  They constantly heckled and picked on me for my unusual interests and behavior.  Instead of doing what any other boy would do and stand up, I rolled with the punches.  I built a shell around myself.  My bedroom became my sanctuary.  It had everything I liked, video game magazines, video games, movies, and a wall of video game posters.  If I was in there, I was safe.

Picture of a 15 year old William.  Someone get him a haircut and a razor!

I was like that until I was 18.  Then, changes happened.  I started talking with classmates, participating in events, and having fun.  Plus, I got along better with my stepbrothers.  The shell was cracking, and I broke free after I started college in 2015 then earned my black belt the year after.  Coming out of black belt grading, I felt like a new man who had shed his old self.  It's easy for me to make conversation with others, I like to get involved as much as possible, and I push myself to accomplish my goals.

Asperger's has affected different parts of me, like my interests.  I know a lot about video games and movies.  Name any title from any year or genre, and I can tell you everything about it.  I loved watching movies growing up, particularly the Godzilla films.  I would watch them repeatedly because I was so mesmerized by giant monsters duking it out.  I'd talk to other kids in school about Godzilla and all they did was roll their eyes.

Despite my obsessive interests, I have an open mind and absorb with all kinds of information.  Reading has been incredibly helpful.  It has bettered my writing skills and opened my eyes to many subjects.  I read fiction, non-fiction, history, autobiographies, the list goes on.  I am also a creative individual.  Writing is my main outlet.  If something's on my mind, I write about it.  I use journals to write entries, keep track of tasks, and plan things.  I decided to parlay my interests in writing and entertainment into GamerGuy's Reviews, a decision I don't regret.

For every strength, there is a weakness.  My biggest challenge growing up was social interaction.  Unless the topic was something I liked, I had a hard time keeping conversation, or for that matter, looking at the person when speaking.  Fortunately, that's no longer a problem.  

My biggest challenge now is my scatterbrained mind.  I'm always thinking about different things.  Even as I write this editorial, I'm thinking about stuff to do today, tomorrow, the rest of the week, etc.  It's like a pot constantly churning and bubbling.  Journals have been very helpful because I can plan out what I'm going to do and adjust where necessary.

I'm easily distracted by noise.  When there's a lot going on, it is hard for me to focus.  In college, I did all my work and studying in isolation, which greatly increased my concentration.  If I'm with a friend, I always ask him or her if we can go outside, if the option is available.

Living with Asperger's is both easy and difficult, but video games have been helpful.  Research indicates that video games can help improve an autistic person's motor skills, focus, and their social interaction skills.  Now, my parents were strict on how much time I could spend playing games back when I was a kid.  They wanted me outside instead of staring at a screen all day.  They were more lenient during those tumultuous teenage years.

Despite the constant harassment from my stepbrothers, one of the things we bonded over was games.  We spent hours playing the Wii and games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  My older stepbrother had an original Xbox, and we played a lot of Halo on weekends.  In 2011, I got an Xbox 360, and I remember getting a game from them with an apology for how they treated me.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  Solving sibling rivalries since 2008!

Additionally, video games kept me out of trouble.  Even though I wasn't socially active during high school, coming home from school to play games was an essential stress reliever, as was karate.  I attribute video games and karate, especially the latter, for keeping me in check and making sure I didn't screw up.

Karate built up my discipline, while video games engaged my creative side.  If it weren't for video games, I probably wouldn't have tried to pursue writing, making videos, or doing anything that engaged the right hemisphere of the brain.

Life is like a video game.  To have Asperger's or any form of autism is the equivalent of playing the game with modifiers activated.  These modifiers make the experience different, sometimes harder, but we still play the game.  Asperger's made me different, yes, but I don't view it as a hindrance.  I may be quirky, but I strive to do my best, pursue my goals, and make a difference.

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