Dungeons & Dragons & Neurodiversity: The Transformative and Life-Enriching Effects for Neurodiverse Adults by Caleb Valorozo-Jones
Role-play is one of the core activities of Dungeons & Dragons and is an effective method to practise and develop skills, especially when players are not held to standards of neurotypical peers. ABA and other less controversial behaviour programs make use of role-play, and role-play has been observed to positively impact autistic youths engaging in live action role-play (LARP).
Explicit Rules & Social Structure
Autistic youths at a LARP camp were observed during two months of ethnographic field research, finding that “the structured social practices of role-playing, from the character design sheets to the genre-specific formality of interactions, constituted a sociocultural ecology affordances of which provided the support and organization participants needed for successful social coordination” (Fein 2015). Interactions outside of gameplay rely on implicit rules and structures that may not be understood or known by autistic people. However, the inherent structures, explicit rules and game mechanics of TTRPGs, like D&D, can create an environment which promotes successful interactions and support positive social interactions with autistic people.
This is in contrast to out of game, unstructured socializing; social interactions are packed with inherent and implicit rules, like rules of etiquette, making eye contact and other arbitrary social rules which can also vary amongst cultures. These rules are rarely explained to us, and learned through social interactions with peers, parents, and authority figures. Our implicit biases against people who deviate from expected social norms and behaviours perpetuates prejudice against neurodiverse folks. Through playing D&D, it’s an opportunity for neurotypical players to examine how to create more inclusive social environments for neurodiverse folks by participating in explicit social rules and structures.
Boundaries & Psychological Safety
In addition to the structure and rules in D&D, there are also community created guidelines to protect player’s and groups psychological safety. Some groups play with Line and Veils to explicitly communicate their boundaries. Line refers to a hard line of omission of certain subject matter or triggers that other players cannot cross, whereas a Veil is something that you can allude to, but not describe in detail.
For example, a player’s line may be substance abuse as they are triggered or made uncomfortable by substance abuse, so no content or actions with substance abuse would be discussed or included in the game. However, if a player had substance abuse as a Veil, the Dungeons Master and other players could allude to drinking ale at a tavern, but not describe indepth the experience or affects.
Another storytelling technique use is “Fade to Black”. Like how films set-up an action and then fade to black to after it’s completed, so players can use their own imagination to fill in the gaps if they wish, and players with who prefer to Veil certain subject matter can know an action happened without being uncomfortable by an overt description.
These strategies are built into the game, but instead designed by the TTRPG community to create more inclusive games. This gives players opportunities to better understand others’ personal boundaries, and perhaps their own, so groups can play and foster group psychological safety and shared intentionality.
Disability & Inclusivity
The efforts to improve the gaming experience doesn’t just end with boundaries. As mentioned, D&D is a hobby that relates to and complements many other hobbies. D&D enthusiasts with skills and interests in Maker Culture (3D printing, physical prototyping) become interested in dice making and prototyping tactile gameplay tools to make D&D accessible to blind and partially sighted players (like creating braille and tactile dice, screen reader friendly character sheets etc.).
D&D and role-play inherently deals with identity and self-exploration. The official rules and adventures replicate power structures in our society, and the rich history and lore within Dungeons & Dragons including wars, racial tensions, and slavery, further replicate oppression and power structures of our world (Garcia, 2017, p. 240).
Just as our world is socially constructed, players can socially construct or deconstruct these power dynamics through their gameplay, creating their own cultural systems, especially through Homebrew content. Some players created mechanics for various disabilities to reflect the challenges and unique abilities that their disabilities may present. These crowdsourced game mechanics are co-created based on lived experience, which can allow players that experience oppression for their neurodiversity or disability to explore these oppressive power dynamics and systems, and practise self-advocacy skills.
Exploring disability and identity also allows for deeper exploration into power structures by constructing unique, customized content, as opposed to imitating in-game or real world structures. Dungeons & Dragons game is a cultural artifact, and the players, characters, and collective story and world building of neurodiverse and autistic players are also artifacts of co-created autistic and Neurodiversity culture.
Now that you’ve boosted your knowledge stats about Dungeons & Dragons, autism and neurodiversity, and Role-playing, it’s time to play! I would absolutely love to play D&D with every person that reads this and participates in this exhibit, but time and COVID-19 keeps us apart.