There is an interesting paper, Klin, A., Danovitch, J. H., Merz, A. B., & Volkmar, F. R. (2007). Circumscribed interests in higher functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders: An exploratory study. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32(2), 89-100, in which a number of special interest areas are described and categorised in an effort to highlight how these areas relate to areas of talent that some individuals with autism possess. For example, the paper notes that some children with autism show particular strength in categorising and ordering information, such as being able to relate types of dinosaur to particular geological periods, or, in the case of a student I once worked with, to be able to categorise types of public phone boxes and to order them by the frequency they appeared in local suburbs.
I became interested in the findings of the paper in particular relation to the large number of students with autism I was working with who were fascinated by Minecraft. Certainly for a period it appeared that most children and young people the world over were taken by Minecraft, but it was an absolutely ubiquitous feature of the work we were doing with students with autism that sooner or later the conversation would turn to Minecraft. In many surface level ways the link between Minecraft and autism was immediately clear - it was a very visual game in so far as it so directly mirrored the sort of first person processing that could almost be described as experiential video modelling, and it tapped into so many of the classic logical, sequencing interests that many of our students have, such as would have been applied formerly to Lego and building blocks and train tracks and other concrete, orderly creative acts. But there was more to it than just this surface level conjecture that aligned with the processing styles ascribed to autism, and it is with reference to the above paper that I want to highlight some of the special interest categories that I feel relate directly to a strong level of engagement that our students with autism experience with this game.
- Visual and Verbal Memory and Learning
There is a visible deep understanding of the collections of facts that compose the working world of Minecraft. Consider an understanding of which elements must be combined to achieve success in certain tasks, or the way in which particular actions need to occur under certain conditions to elicit complicated causal reactions.
- Sensory Behaviours
There is a sense of order that comes about through creating pattern based environments in Minecraft. Students have noted how they feel calm playing Minecraft for extended periods when they are simply placing block after block in a pattern in order to compose the structure of a building, or to slowly reshape the topography of a vast green landscape.
Consider not only the formal numerical processes that accompany reactions in Minecraft, such as the number of elements added to another number of elements to create something new, but also the causal trajectories that Logic Gates and the like engage that start to approach a programming style formulation of maths processes.
- Classifying / Ordering Information
Ordering the materials and elements in Minecraft according to one or more different factors is one of the foundational requirements to achieve results inside the game, and for students who excel in this category of special interest they are very attuned to, say, how they can make a portal by creating a very specific five by four rectangle out of obsidian, then further requiring flint and steel, and so on, for many iterations of world requisites within the game.
- Dates and Times
I'm fascinated with this area myself, particular with the relationship between Real Time and Minecraft Time. Certainly much of the game can rest upon recognising when nightfall is coming and the structures in place to hold up over night, and so on, but there is also a fascinating strategising that I observe our students engage in when comparing the two time realms. One day in Minecraft Time is twenty minutes in our Real Time, so one hour in Minecraft Time is fifty seconds in our Real Time, and different segments of the day-night cycle proceed at different speeds.
Again a central tenet of Minecraft, the idea of collecting precious elements to be utilised later, to hoard them for the purpose of forward thinking functionality, is a terrific demonstration of the sort of executive functioning skills that are required to strategically amount successful creative outcomes throughout the game.
How, then, are we to best interpret and foster the way these special area skills sets engage the foundational access points of Minecraft? In our school, we utilise Minecraft with our students in with autism in a number of ways. For example, some of our classes have recently been reading novels and having students utilise their mastery of Minecraft to create worlds within that reflect the novels they are reading. Some students who are unable to expressively communicate their comprehension of a passage of text are nonetheless able to precisely and beautifully describe the world and meaning of a text through their composition in Minecraft. We have used the skill sets described above in order to tell stories in Minecraft, to explore emotional regulation and ethical considerations, to model advanced numeracy skills and to explore the natural sciences.
You can read about how I used Minecraft with a class of students to create a movie that utilised some of the special interest categories described above, depicted here in a free book on the iBooks Store - [Download]
I have also put together an A3 poster describing these special interests in relation to Minecraft, available to download here - [Download]
In 2015 a colleague, Heath Wild, and I will be presenting a workshop on further utilising Minecraft in the education of children with autism, presented at the Special Education Needs Congress in Sydney - [Link]