The following editorial was originally published in Knights of the Dinner Table #268 and is posted here with permission.
I’ve been going to gaming conventions for over twenty years and, as an extrovert, one of the things I have enjoyed about them is seeing all the people and hearing the joyful sounds and laughter as people play games.
I love seeing crowds of people excited about gaming, the numerous people wearing costumes, and the chaos one can find in a dealer hall. For me, this is my “meat and drink” when I attend a convention.
But that’s not true for everyone.
Over the last few years, I have become more and more aware of the need for conventions to find ways to meet the needs of differently abled gamers.
As our hobby continues to grow, we are finding more and more people with autism and similar disabilities who need special spaces to calm down and relax. As someone who counts a number of the “old guard” who worked for TSR and other various other gaming companies as close personal friends, they have mentioned to me how difficult it is for them to get around at many of the larger conventions because they are not very handicap accessible.
The noise level at conventions also makes it difficult for them and finding a quiet place to sit is not always easy.
I have become even more keenly aware of how differently others react to all the sights and sounds at a convention because it has impacted me on a personal level—my son was diagnosed with autism about five years ago.
For those not familiar with autism, it is a condition where people are characterized by having difficulty in social interactions and communication.
They also may find themselves restricted by repetitive patterns of thought and behavior. Since those with autism are on a spectrum, the ability to function around others varies from person to person with some individuals being able to function very well while others find themselves only able to interact with one or two people at a time. Many find themselves at various places between those extremes.
Those with autism experience a hyper-sensitivity to bright lights, certain sounds, smells, and tastes. Even certain types of touch can feel extremely uncomfortable. You can see how in a convention setting, this can become very unsettling and overwhelming as it is unpredictable as to when an autistic person might have a negative reaction.
As a father who has raised one gamer and is now raising another one, I wanted to find a way to incorporate my son into the gaming experience at conventions as I had done with his older sister.
I wasn’t sure how to do this. His sister is not on the spectrum and enjoyed all the sights and sounds when she was younger, but my experiences with my son at various conventions has been as different and varied as the conventions themselves.
Larger conventions would be out of the question as they are more difficult for him to maneuver due to all the sights, sounds, and crowds. It seemed my wife and I would be relegated to only taking him to smaller, local conventions.
Then, miracle of miracles, I found myself with a few weeks off this past summer and had the opportunity to speak at one of the larger gaming conventions in the United States. I wanted to take my family with me so that we might have a bit of a family vacation but wondered how my son would react to all the noise.
He had attended this convention with my wife and his older sister a few years prior and I remembered some of the difficulties we faced. We couldn’t predict when the sights and sounds of the convention would overwhelm him but when they did, we knew it immediately. When this occurs, he becomes harder to manage and settle down.
For most people, when they view him in this state, they usually make comments such as, “Oh, wow, this one’s hyperactive” or, if they are really bold they will say, “What an out of control child!” because he begins to run around and finds it hard to focus on the directions we are giving him.
As a family, we had to learn that an autistic child who has become overstimulated is receiving so much input they can no longer focus on one thing.
All of these stimuli have “overloaded his circuits” so to speak and he cannot take any new input. He is just unable to process it.
When we had attended previously, our answer to this problem was to take him back to the hotel room we had been able to secure close to the convention center.
I knew that wouldn’t be a possibility this year because the expense of the hotels close by had risen out of our price range, so we were having to stay a few miles away.
I began looking at the convention’s website and saw they were advertising a “New Sensory Friendly Gaming Room” and I thought to myself, “This is excellent! A place to take him when things get overwhelming.”
I didn’t read the “small print” on the website so I did not realize the organization which was hosting the Sensory Friendly Room had it blocked off after noon on Friday as well as for the remainder of the weekend. The group sponsoring the room were using it for their own “special event.”
So, on Friday afternoon, I found myself with a ten-year-old boy who was overwhelmed with all the noise of the convention center.
His mother had been dealing with his bouncing back and forth from one thing to another for quite some time so I thought I would give her a break and take him to the Sensory Friendly room.
When we arrived, we were told it had been reserved for those who had signed up for it, that we wouldn’t be able to use it. No one had mentioned this to us the previous day so I was very surprised.
My son had already walked into the room and had begun to play one of the games so I found myself having to go in after him and try to explain that we would have to leave. He didn’t understand what was going and was now in tears.
All he could say to me was, “This isn’t fair.” After a little conversation, I was able to take him out of the room and after some searching, we found a place to sit down.
At this point, I knew our day was pretty much at an end even though it was barely noon.
I posted about this on social media because I was upset, my wife was upset, our son was upset, and I was hoping for some answers. I wanted the convention to know what we were experiencing and find out if others had something similar occur to them.
The convention pointed me to the place on the website where it showed the room was reserved by the hosting organization during the most active hours of the convention.
If you’re going to advertise a sensory friendly space, then it should be open to all those who might need it as those with sensory overload do not know when they will be requiring it.
I’m sure many of you may have, at times, experienced some type of sensory overload at a convention.
Now—imagine you can’t filter out all of that extra stimuli. This was what my son faces on an almost daily basis. You may have also seen people in wheelchairs jostled and pushed about as they travel the halls and corridors of a convention.
I know of vendors with accessibility needs who are limited to a short time at loading and unloading zones and have been ordered to move along because they’ve taken too long. Accessibility at gaming conventions is difficult!
As the chaplain at Gary Con, people often ask me where they might be able to find quieter spaces because things can get pretty loud in the designated gaming areas.
It’s not always easy to find those spots but we’re fortunate to have plenty of people who have opened their on-site rooms to people who need a place to chill out from all the noise.
We also have a GM lounge for those who run games and it provides a place for them to get away from all the excitement. It’s not a perfect solution but we are working to make it better each year.
In my day to day job, I am a full-time United Methodist pastor and have served a variety of churches. One of the first things we are asked to do when we arrive at a new site is conduct an accessibility audit.
To be honest, many of our churches are over a hundred years old and not as accessible as we would like. It’s very difficult to get them to a place where they would be compliant, but we are trying. Since these are religious institutions, they are not required by law to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but we do our best to make sure we follow the law as closely as possible to make all people feel welcome.
Some of our churches are even working on providing special worship services where people on the autism spectrum who have sensory issues will feel more at ease.
We have seen this need and it’s my hope more conventions see it as well. If more gaming conventions would provide spaces for those with sensory issues—as well as better physical access to its attendees—it would open their doors to people who could not previously attend.
With the CDC reporting that 1 in 59 children have some form of autism and the Pew Research Center reporting 12.6% of the American population have some type of physical disability more and more families are trying to find accessibility options.
Conventions could increase their attendance by finding more creative ways to meet their needs. While it would be nice to see conventions do this out of a desire to meet the needs of a very diverse community, finding new ways to open their doors to people with accessibility needs might increase their bottom line.
There are organizations such as Game to Grow which use tabletop games in weekly “therapeutic social skills groups [to] help young people become more confident, creative, and socially capable.”
Game to Grow recently had a Kickstarter for a tabletop RPG called Critical Core “that helps kids on the autism spectrum build confidence and social skills, one dragon at a time.”
The Bodhana Group “advocates the use of tabletop gaming as a directed therapeutic and clinical practice that can benefit personal growth as well as enhance social and educational services to individuals and families.”
It’s not like autism and similar disabilities are unknown within our community. Shows like Community, The Big Bang Theory, and Stranger Things feature characters who, while they may not be identified as autistic, have some of those distinguishing traits.
Many of us have or know someone with social anxiety issues who has found solace in tabletop RPGs.
These are our brothers, sisters, children, parents, and friends. We should be making it easier for them to come and be a part of our mutual gaming experiences.
I want to end this on a positive note by pointing the reader to a major convention which has made great strides toward providing the spaces I have mentioned above.
The convention which provides a space “for anyone who feels overwhelmed and needs a place to regain their calm” is PAX. These spaces are run by Take This and they provide what they call an AFK room which is run by local volunteers and clinicians.
When I went to check it out, I was wondering which PAX conventions used it and was excited to see all of the PAX conventions use them to provide these spaces.
It also appears these AFK rooms are used at other conventions but, as of this writing, I could not find a list of those conventions on their website.
So, at this point, I hope you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” Do you attend conventions? Would you like to but are worried about accessibility issues?
Contact these conventions via social media and email to ask them about accessibility for people with autism—as well as those with physical disabilities.
Point these conventions to established organizations such as Take This, The Bodhana Group, and/or Game to Grow.
Believe me when I tell you that conventions do respond to attendees’ requests—if there are enough of them talking about it.
It may take some time to work it out but, eventually, we could see the tide shift enabling more people to have access to these spaces.