Angela was on call when a young boy with autism — who I'll call Tim — came up to her for help. Tim's friend had recently committed suicide, and it was clear he was shaken and upset. Within minutes of talking, Angela understood that Tim didn't have a family he felt comfortable talking to. Running through her own mental checklist, Angela suggested that, if comfortable, he should seek out and talk to a guidance counselor or school therapist. But Angela knew Tim needed help right away. "You need to find some help but how can I help you right now? How can we help release all this that you're feeling?" she asked.
Tim asked Angela if she'd help him build a memorial for his friend and the two began constructing: Tim built a cross out of some stone blocks; Angela planted flowers. Later, Tim fashioned a sign, which he hung on the stone cross. "You will never see the stars if your head is always down," it read. Angela invited some of the nearby children to see what Tim had built. One by one they offered up their support, taking turns embracing him. The next day, Tim confessed that Angela's support had helped him feel better about his friend. Tears in her eyes, Angela watched as Tim disappeared from view, heading off to build or join a quest.
Or maybe he simply logged off.
Stories like this one pop up all the time in Autcraft, a server for the popular multiplayer video game, Minecraft, where Angela routinely puts in 40-plus hour volunteer work weeks as an administrator. Autcraft is one of hundreds of thousands of active Minecraft servers, but one of only a few that caters exclusively to children, young adults, and parents of children with autism and Asperger's. Painstakingly moderated by a team of dutiful (and intensely vetted) volunteers, Autcraft is a safe haven to 5,000 players from all over the world and arguably one of the best communities on the internet.
Autcraft's founder and cult hero (according to one parent, "He's like Elvis in there!") is Stuart Duncan, a web developer from Timmons, Canada, who goes by the handle AutismFather. In 2013, Duncan, who has Asperger's syndrome and is the father of children with autism, had been keeping a blog about raising children with autism when he noticed that a number of parents of autistic children in his various networks were struggling to find a safe place for their kids to play Minecraft. Parents were complaining that most Minecraft servers subjected their children to bullies, trolls, foul language, and other emotionally disturbing behavior. Duncan, who had already been playing the game with his kids, bought a $2.50 starter server that he named Autcraft and invited 400 people from his blog's Facebook page, expecting few responses.
But it exploded: "I got 750 emails in the first two days," Duncan told BuzzFeed News. "These parents, they really really felt they had no place to go and here was a place where they thought, My kid won't be bullied. I didn't have to do any ads; they were desperate."
By its very nature, a game like Minecraft is an intuitive and addictive teaching tool; as a result it's been embraced by many video game-wary parents. In Minecraft, players can explore their creativity by pairing together textures and colors and building the world around them, learn number skills, and even hone their social skills. But for children and young adults who have trouble with social cues, Minecraft — and specifically Autcraft — gives autistic players the chance to meet and talk with likeminded children, hone crucial social skills, and learn to feel comfortable with themselves and in their new environment. And it all takes place behind the a protective shield of screens, keyboards, and avatars.
"When you have a lot of insecurities, face-to-face communication can be very limiting," Duncan said. "Whereas in Minecraft, you don't feel like you're talking to a human being, but you have fun and you let your guard down."
The community of Autcraft has a therapeutic effect on its gamers: Inside the safe space of the game, players have an opportunity to communicate without worrying about the prospect of being bullied and, in many cases, develop a newfound self-confidence from playing and interacting with friends.
"We began to notice our son was gaining confidence in his typing and spelling," Joy and Charles, the parents of a 10-year-old boy who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, said. "We saw his reading improve and we saw him become more and more willing to chat with other players and carry on conversations, something that was very hard for him. We also watched him build relationships with certain players. There is one player in particular that he loves to play with and asks about often. For our son this is a big deal."
And there are dozens of similar testimonials.
"Autcraft has done things that years of therapy has not; in a few short weeks playing Autcraft, tarebear8805 has finally began asking for help, truly telling us what she needs, and, most of all, is finally recognizing that her actions do affect others," one parent told me in an email.
"Being a girl with aspergers, you might feel lonely," a mother of a player posted to Autcraft's website. "Having anxiety towards other children can be devastating. And here comes Autcraft, from the other side of the world, and suddenly you're part of something bigger. Suddenly you feel worthy."
For Duncan, Autcraft is about stripping away the fear and anxiety of judgement and bullying that online communities can often foster. Inside Autcraft, children can find players who share in their interests and obsessions and, oftentimes, find an ear long after most have grown tired of listening.
"When you have a kid with autism and they like something they will talk to you until you, as a parent, need to talk about something different and you can kind of shut them down," Duncan said. "But on the server all the kids know that and never, ever shut each other down. A kid will say, 'That's amazing — you know all this about trees' or some other subject. Having such a big community, there's at least one other person who shares that interest and they go off and build together."
For the parents, Autcraft is many things: a way to bond with their son or daughter; a teaching tool; or a safe respite from a chaotic, often cruel and misunderstanding world. Plenty of parents have become as addicted as their children; for some it's become their primary volunteer outlet. "We have seen a lot of growth in our own children, but as volunteers we have seen growth in A LOT of children," Joy and Charles said. "That is how it is on Autcraft: When we log in, all of the sudden we have nearly 5,000 children." Angela agreed: "If you enjoy cooking, you do your service at a soup kitchen. My family and I enjoy Minecraft and so this becomes my service," she told BuzzFeed News.
For Duncan and the admins, the work of keeping the community safe is grueling. "Pretty much every admin has described it as the most stressful job they've ever had," Duncan said. Until he recently stepped away from full-time admin duties, Duncan said it was constantly demanding, more than full-time job. "I had to tell my kids, 'I can't play now because some child wants to commit suicide and I have to go talk to him.' Up until I stepped away I was on there pretty much any time I was awake. I did 24/7 for a year and a half, even Christmas and Easter; I'd have Skype on my phone. I was always there." The site is primarily funded by Duncan and by small donations from Autcraft players, though fundraising efforts have been sparse.
These volunteers work around the clock so that there's always a watchful presence on the server, often having to play detective when there's a problem (stealing, arguments). These sorts of "flare-ups," as Duncan calls them, are fairly common and, if not handled properly, some players begin to feel bullied and distraught. "It's not always smooth," Duncan said, "but it's also the most rewarding job, so long as you keep telling them they're safe and there's a huge sense of reward. They feel happier with you than anywhere else because they feel that they're going to be taken care of."
Take a wrong turn and the internet can quickly turn. Its deepest, darkest corners are home to unspeakable acts, illegal activities, and men and women who, when shielded by anonymity and a Wi-Fi connection, hold full-time jobs causing emotional pain for sport. Just one encounter with this side of the web is enough to unravel even the emotionally hearty; for those with autism, Asperger's, or other developmental disorders, the emotional trauma of the darker side of the internet can be catastrophic.
Which is what makes Autcraft so unique and important. For many of its 5,000 players, Autcraft is the most important community they belong to, on- or offline. In some cases, it's the only world in which players really feel like they're living.
That may sound overdramatic, given the toxic nature of so many online communities, but scroll around long enough on Autcraft's website and you'll find its testimonial page, where the parents say it all.
"It has been the saving grace of two little boys who will one day be men," one mother wrote.