From Within the Bubble: An Autistic View of Magic

Magic is a game with a stereotype. When the general population thinks about us, they tend to think of overweight, socially inept people with no other hobby but Magic and dubious personal hygine. I've encountered enough Magic players to know that this stereotype is utter nonsense.

Yet, to a degree, it describes me more than I would like. This is not because Magic consumes my life, which it doesn't, but because I am autistic, one of several in my area who plays Magic on a regular basis. I'm here to speak on their behalf to share our Magic-related experiences.

What is Autism?

I suppose I should enlighten you as to what my condition is before we go any further. Autism is a lifelong condition where the affected person's development is hindered to a variable degree. In most cases, their communication is impaired and they adhere to a rigid routine and fight fiercely against any changes to it. In some cases they eat a limited type of food (which is part of my problem) and have difficulty eating anything different. A small number can have severe difficulties with behaviour, such as kicking and punching. They also have keen, sometimes not widely shared interests which may border on obsession. In some cases, the person is isolated in their own little world, unable to communicate legibly with anyone else and will be completely unable of caring for themselves.

Fortunately, my autism is mild. I have been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome since I was eleven. Aspeger's Syndrome is a realtively mild form of autism. I have difficulty describing things to people; my manner of speech is abnormally polite. I cannot eat fruit and vegetables (I have tried - read: retched - and failed. It is very hard to swallow them) and if something unexpected comes out of the blue, I panic and fidget until I get around the idea.

There is a positive side to this condition, though. I have always been a great learner, have always done well at school, and also have been able to play the piano and clarinet very well.

Despite these positive things about me, I have continued to have problems socializing with strangers. There have been times where I feel like I'm still in my little bubble, not unlike Solitary Confinment, isolated from the world, and even those closest to me can only grip the outside.

But let's not dwell on that. It's not like I'm depressed about it. It's part of what makes me unique. That, and the wide variety of interests I've picked up over the years, ranging from political satire to flying fish (?), from classic computer games to parodies of them, from Star Trek to ships of the past, some of which don't exist. It's from a nonexistent ship I derive my online name.

Getting to the Bit About Magic

Setting aside these interests, one of my obsessions over the years has been Magic. In Spring of 2000, a friend of my brother introduced it to him, who introduced it to my other brother, who introduced it to me. Like most things introduced to me which I eventually liked I was cautious, then curious, then enjoying it, then hooked.

We started with the old starter pack that came with a giant Thorn Elemental and worked our way up with Exodus and Urza block precons. Ironically, school pressure forced me to take a break just as Invasion came out, which I'm led to believe was going against the grain.

We picked up the pace again shortly after Torment, and eventually, I discovered where we could attend tournaments, just in time for the Judgment Prerelease. We've participated regularly ever since, and have been partially responsible for an upturn in the number of Magic players in our area.

Enough About You; Get to the Point!

Sorry, but this article is about an autistic person's views of Magic, an issue I feel fairly qualified to discuss.

What Attracts an Autistic Person to Magic?

While autistic people can be attracted to Magic for traditional reasons, such as pretty artwork, there are a number of less predictable but important reasons why they would want to play.

First of all, at least in my experience, autistic people are notoriously stubborn-minded. I know it takes three or four trusted people armed with powerful evidence to persuade me to change my mind about something. This has two benefits. Firstly, I have a very high resistance to peer pressure, so if someone who is not very close to me says what I'm doing is stupid, I very rarely care. The second benefit our stubborness brings is our dedication to our decisions, no matter what they are. When an autistic person has an interest, it's usually for life, regardless of what it is.

The second main factor that drives us to Magic is our need for predictability and security. Magic is a game with rules. Some games like hide and seek have various sets of rules, and not being clear on the rules confuses and panics us. In Magic, the rules stay the same. 20 life, 7 cards, best of 3, scoop to Affinity, etc. These constants make sure we know where we are at any given point. However, a potential downside of this (depending on your perspective) is we really dislike it when people don't adhere to the rules strictly, which in my experience can irritate some people.

The final main factor is math. A sizable portion of autistic people, myself included, are very good at mathematics, and enjoy working out problems. As a spectator, some of my favourite decks to watch in action are decks like Wake which need to keep a tight track of their numbers to be effective. Not that these are the type of decks I play, but I'll explain that later.

What Benefits does Magic Have for Autistic People?

From my own experiences, Magic bestows a number of benefits on autistic people. Admitedly, it can bestow these benefits on other people, but these benefits can be taken for granted by the general populus.

The first benefit is educational. On the cards and in the novels, Magic has exposed me to a variety of new words. Words like Vendetta, Divine Intervention, and Carrion, which I now tend to use in my conversation. For many autistic people with communication problems, improving their vocabularies can do nothing but good. Magic's rich storyline (and Mirrodin block) have fueled my appetite for reading, which again can improve my vocabulary. My mathematical skills have also improved, due to the need of keeping a track of several different numbers that can change in rapid succession.

The second benefit is manners. Autistic people have a tough time grasping the concept of turns, and a game like Magic, which is so turn-oriented, helps us grasp it. It also teaches us patience. When autistic people take any sort of action, we do not like being interrupted. Since being in the middle of casting a creature before realising your Wrath of God is getting countered is not a desireable situation, they will eventually learn about priority. The rules are not only providing a structured system for them, but it can help with the behavioural difficulties that many of them have.

The final benefit is the most important: socializing. As I've said, we're not a social group, and when I was younger, I spent much of my time on my own, reading or watching TV. Since Magic requires its participants to get out and meet each other, that helped to break the habit. Also, due to us sharing a common interest, I've met 30+ people that I otherwise wouldn't, and can socialize with them. I may not be a master at it, but it has also helped me feel less awkward in a situation with strangers. It has helped me forge a special bond with my brother, who has helped to encourage me to get out in the world once in a while.

What Can I Do to Help an Autistic Magic Player?

Raising an autistic child is no easy task. Ask any parent that I have talked to, and they will tell you about being driven to their wits' end in arguments, stressed out by panic attacks and tantrums, and plagued by constant anxiety about their child's future. If you are related to or know someone with autism, you should encourage them to play Magic. It can only do them good. However, there are a number of issues you need to look out for:
  1. Similar decks - Autistic Magic Players tend to build the same type of decks, with little deviation. For example, in just about any format, I play White Weenie, regardless of what tools I have. (A notable exception is Mirrodin block. I knew WW was going nowhere after Skullclamp was banned.) They also tend to include their favourite card, which doesn't change over a long time. One of my friends stopped playing Standard after Onslaught rotated out, because he could no longer play Akroma. We eventually persuaded him to play it again.
  2. Rules Arguments - If they've come to where you're playing with a misconception about the game (e.g. Artifacts have summoning sickness), it may be difficult to persuade them otherwise. Also, once they decide how a rules nightmare works, they will stick to that decision for a long time, regardless of how right or wrong that ruling is.
  3. Behavioural Problems - As I've said, some autistic people have issues with behaviour. This is most likely to arise when they lose. I must stress that not all autistic people have these problems, but if you are aware of any problems, you must take care. Talk to their parents for advice if it becomes a recurring problem.
So if you want to introduce an autistic person to Magic, it's important that you:
  • Remain patient. If they've been taught the game poorly, they're likely to make the same mistakes repeatedly.
  • Make allowances for strange behaviour, but draw the line at inappropriate/dangerous behaviour.
  • Encourage them to talk about their other interests, and to talk to people other than their opponents. This will make them more likely to engage in conversation, and their communication will improve.
I'm not advocating Magic as a 'cure' for autism, but in my group, the people who participate, myself included, have been able to talk to people more comfortably, and their behaviour has improved. At the very least, they will have a group of people who will look out for them at school or in town. For the parents, this will be one of the greatest benefits: people who know about their child's condition and care about them.

So How has Magic Benefitted You?

Rather than list all the benefits Magic has given me, I feel I should tell you a story. Once, I went away to a retreat with a group of people around my age, many of which also play Magic. During this time, people came up to me and told me how much they liked me, how they liked my sense of humour and general good spirits. I was overwhelmed. I had no idea that so many people thought so highly of me. It moved me literally to tears.

That, along with my brother's friendship, has pierced the bubble. I feel like part of the larger world, and it feels great. I could never have done this without Magic: The Gathering.

Banner by votan
Editing by Goblinboy & Binary


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