Happy new year! 🎆
While nothing tangibly changes between 11:59 p.m. December 31st, and 12:01 a.m. January 1st, nonetheless, the new year brings with it so much hope and potential.
For the past two months, I’ve been working on a project with a dear friend and we’re ready to share what will be a big focus for us this year.
I’m excited to introduce you to Katapult Play, a non-profit dedicated to empowering neurodivergent youth through play by creating a safe virtual space for them to express themselves, build confidence and forge connections.
We’ve been working in partnership with other community organizations to deliver Minecraft based recreational programs for their audiences. Starting from February 2021, we will be offering our own workshops, camps, and programs in custom Minecraft worlds. Participants will join a group of 5–6 other kids to explore, defeat monsters, and conquer in-game missions while on a video call moderated by our facilitation team.
Please get in touch if you are or know of anyone who is…
- an expert in special education, child psychology or has done research into Autism, Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorders or Anxiety Disorders in children.
- in high school/university and interested in volunteering with us — either as a designer building custom Minecraft worlds or a facilitator providing support during live sessions.
- interested in giving us feedback, whether as a neurodivergent individual, a parent to neurodivergent kids or someone who is interested in our focus!
How It Began
Around two months ago, I was catching up with Michael, a friend since high school.
Michael is passionate about working with kids who have social, learning or developmental challenges. Through university and now post grad, he has been volunteering and working with various programs for neurodivergent youth.
This time, he was telling me about working with Camp Kirk, a summer camp in Ontario for kids with Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Autism. Due to Covid-19, in-person programming was cancelled and summer camps like Camp Kirk were scrambling to find virtual ways of delivering a robust experience.
Michael’s solve was to create a custom Minecraft world where participants could play mini games and re-build a digital version of the campgrounds together, all while hanging out on video call. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the Minecraft program received the most consistent attendance across all programs the summer camp ran in 2020.
At the same time, I had been thinking a lot about digital third places.
The convergence of our social lives and video games is a trend that’s only been accelerated by Covid. I was seeing it in the news — graduations and weddings taking place in Minecraft and Animal Crossing — and I was seeing it in my life. Practically daily, my teenage brothers kept up with their school friends by playing Minecraft. Every Saturday evening, my boyfriend and his group of friends scattered across the U.S. get on Discord and chat while gaming. Across the world, there’s been an explosion of programs that use games like Minecraft and Roblox to introduce kids to topics ranging from coding to social learning.
Yet from what Michael and I had seen, there appeared to be a shortage of digital third spaces that were inclusive and enriching environments for neurodivergent kids — which is exactly what Michael had done for Camp Kirk via Minecraft. Our intuition was that there is an unfulfilled need here that maybe we could do something about.
Social Isolation Among Neurodivergent Individuals
People with social, emotional, and learning challenges are disproportionately affected by loneliness and social isolation.
- Nearly one in three young adults with autism experience social isolation. 
- Up to 50% of people with a learning disability experience chronic loneliness. 
- A third of children with a learning disability say they find it harder than average to make friends. 
As you would expect, loneliness among children with neurodevelopmental disabilities is linked to negative long-term consequences on mental health, behavior, and emotional development.
However, neurodivergent individuals who engage in online gaming report higher satisfaction with their social lives.
In a 2015 study, researchers surveyed 85 autistic participants and a control group of 71 participants without autism. They found that within the ASD sample, those who played online games had more friends and experienced less loneliness than those who did not. 
Likewise, in a 2011 survey of 52 autistic teenagers, researchers found that participants with ASD who played video games with friends reported more positive friendship qualities and greater companionship with their best friend. 
What Makes Video Games So Effective?
After some further research, Michael and I learned that there are a few reasons why video games, especially sandbox style ones like Minecraft, are incredible environments for neurodivergent kids to practice and gain social confidence.
Video games put control back in the hands of neurodivergent kids.
In a world that often feels like it wasn’t made for them, navigating social interactions can be extremely tiring for neurodivergent individuals.
Online environments are less intimidating because participants can remove themselves whenever a situation becomes overwhelming. Socializing virtually can also help individuals focus on the interactions themselves, rather than on managing the anxiety that comes with all the inputs of socializing face-to-face.
Put together, video games are a low stakes, low barrier environment that can encourage neurodivergent youth to push outside their comfort zone and develop confidence in their social skills.
Neurodivergent kids are already using games like Minecraft to manage their emotions and develop independence.
While we were looking into the topic of video games and neurodivergence, Michael and I spoke to a few parents of neurodivergent kids. Many of their kids discovered Minecraft at a young age — between 4 and 6 years old — and developed a natural interest. In comparison to other games, Minecraft’s hallmark blocky appearance, tranquil background music and focus on building, provides just the right amount of stimulation and creative freedom to be both relaxing and engaging.
Parents also observed that one of the main reasons their kids enjoy Minecraft was the sense of accomplishment that came with figuring out how to build or do something and progressing within the game. In-game objectives motivated their kids to seek out resources on their own, try again when a particular task is frustrating and grow their self-certainty when they achieved their goals.
In-game avatars, Minecraft’s customizability and the existing Minecraft community work together to achieve sustainable engagement.
Theoretically, a recreational program delivered entirely through video calls is possible but there’s something magical that happens when it’s paired with a game like Minecraft.
The physicality of moving around in-game and interacting with each other’s avatars lends an element of realness. Minecraft’s customizability not only allows us to enforce safety rules (i.e. no breaking what others have built), it also enables us to tailor the games we build for each group of participants. Finally, meeting people over a shared interest that has its own broad neurodiverse community, creates a starting point for relationships with kids of all neurotypes.
This is the most ambitious and potentially the most impactful project I’ve ever undertaken and top of my list of things I’m excited about in 2021.
In February, we’ll be kicking off our own programs first with one-day workshops, with plans for a spring camp and ongoing weekly programming. Keep up to date with what’s coming up by heading over to www.katapultplay.com.
This has been a huge learning experience for Michael and I. We want to ensure we’re in constant dialogue with the neurodivergent community. If you know of any people that would be interested in volunteering or providing feedback, please give us a shout!
FIND US AT
 ‘Social Participation Among Young Adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder’, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
 ‘Vulnerability to loneliness in people with intellectual disability: an explanatory model’, Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities
 Loneliness Report, Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness
 ‘Online gaming, loneliness and friendships among adolescents and adults with ASD’, Computers in Human Behavior