Minecraft helps kids with autism build richer lives

Two hours north of Sydney, Australia, the kids of 3-6 Rainbow, a class in Aspect Hunter school combining grades 3-6, are playing Minecraft. The students are bright, bubbly and talkative — pretty much what you’d expect from any group of kids ages 8 to 11.

But this class is a little different. It’s run for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a diagnosis that covers a broad range of difficulties with social interactions, communication and repetitive behavior. Yet you’d have trouble guessing that as the kids excitedly play together over a networked Minecraft session. Since Mojang, now owned by Microsoft, first released the immensely popular game in 2009, it’s found a dedicated fan base of teachers, parents and kids living with ASD.

Before he started playing Minecraft in the classroom, Hamish Ellem, 11, would do a lot of “aimless wandering” at the library, say his parents, Walter and Tracy. “Now he knows there’s the Minecraft [section] that he can go to,” says Tracy, “and he’ll look at lots of other books to try and think ‘what can I create in Minecraft?’ to challenge himself.”

The game is built around mining resources, like ores and timber, and then using them to craft tools, machines and buildings. It’s also very logical since players need to gather this, so they can build that. That gameplay “provides information in a visual format and structure, and a certain amount of predictability,” says Victoria Todd, a psychologist at Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect).

Aspect is Australia’s leading provider of education, support, diagnostic assessment and other services for people on the autism spectrum. Its teachers like Craig Smith, deputy principal for Aspect Hunter School in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney, have made Minecraft a big part of teaching classes like 3-6 Rainbow.

Minecraft gives students “a much more understandable version of the actual world,” says Smith, because it presents ideas in a straightforward and visual way. Seeing the game’s potential, Aspect’s teaching staff began designing and testing lessons that integrated Minecraft in early 2013. They learned to play the game, sat in on each other’s classes, gave feedback and improved their methods. That experience, along with their expertise in autism, helped Aspect’s staff create lessons around Minecraft on subjects ranging from English and science to geography and art.