It wasn’t until he was seven that he was officially diagnosed as being on the autism scale. By then, we were already fairly convinced. His speech and working memory were still very limited, he hated changes to his routine, he found it hard to socialise, school seemed terrifying to him. But while we went through the very long- winded process of figuring out why he was different, something else was happening.
I write about video games for a living, so our house is full of games and game consoles. From the age of two he’d clamber up on to my lap and we’d play simple games together – he just got a kick out of pressing buttons on the controller and seeing things respond on screen. Then, when he was six, I downloaded Minecraft, the building simulation created by Markus ‘Notch’ Persson and his team at Swedish game development studio Mojang. Minecraft isn’t really a game in the strict sense of the word – it’s like Lego, but set in a vast landscape that you can explore and alter. It lets you build stuff, destroy stuff, dig massive holes, chase farm animals and kill monsters, but importantly, it doesn’t tell you what to do, or how. You do what you want.
Zac absolutely loved it. Together with his brother Albie, he’d spend as long as we’d let him just wandering the blocky wilderness, building little shacks, or just digging for precious materials like iron and gold. It was lovely to see him so happy, and so engaged in something – it was something he could do just as well as his brother and their friends; he wasn’t left behind. Almost as importantly, he was learning: he started to pick up new words, and he loved to tell us about what he was building, and the things he wanted to do. Whenever we asked him about school, or how he was feeling, he’d usually respond with a few words, or a shrug, or ignore us, but if we asked about Minecraft, he completely lit up. It was a revelation. It was Zac’s wonderful experiences with the game that provided the inspiration for this book. I wanted to convey the huge impact that Minecraft had on his life, how it helped him express himself, and, perhaps most importantly, how it helped us to understand him and the way he is. After several years of medical examinations and occupational therapy and hearing tests and visits to pediatricians, the problems that Zac faced had become our sole focus. Minecraft helped us to see and appreciate him as a funny, imaginative and perceptive child – it helped us to meet our boy.
Sam is definitely not Zac, but a lot of what happens to him is drawn from our lives and what happened to us. I have often written about Zac and Minecraft for the Guardian and every time I do, I’ll get replies from parents whose own children are autistic or just a little different – they express the same sense of relief, happiness and excitement that we felt in our family when Zac took to Minecraft and used it as a way to tell us about himself. Video games get a bad rap; we often think of them as things we need to control and limit – but they can also be a permissive space where people learn and share and create, without judgement or confinement.
Zac is at middle school now, and although he lags behind his peers in a lot of ways, he is doing OK. We’re wondering perhaps if one day he will make his own video games – he’s certainly very good at them. But whatever happens, I will never forget the way he responded to Minecraft, or the way that game welcomed him and made him feel at home. Life puts up so many barriers to people who are different. Any tool that helps us to appreciate those people – whoever they are, however they differ from us – is a precious thing. This is what I learned and what this book is about.