Being in a family affected by autism can be trying for everyone. But one group is trying to help families and children on the spectrum by providing an opportunity to get together and have some fun.
The Spectrum Gaming Project meets once a month in Teays Valley.
"We wanted to create a safe, accepting space for autism families where we offered a way to improve social skills for the children and support and resources for the parents," said John Barton of WV Autism who, along with his wife Christal, founded the project.
"We have three boys on the spectrum and know how isolating that can be sometimes. We wanted to hold an event for parents but knew we needed to include the entire family," he said.
The events are held at Bright Futures Learning Services in Teays Valley.
"Jill McLaury generously opened the space for us when we started," Barton said. "We'll be meeting there until we outgrow the place."
Money for the project was provided by a grant from Families Leading Change. Families are the most important part of the project because it allows every member of a family to participate, not just those on the spectrum.
"If the families were anything like ours, parents would have trouble finding respite caregivers for an event just for them and likely wouldn't come," Barton said.
A lot of work was put in on the project before the first controller was plugged in.
"We consulted with speech therapists, behavior therapists and psychologists to develop the model," Barton said. "We wanted our events to feel relaxed and natural while giving children with autism a chance to work on social skills while doing something they enjoyed and felt comfortable doing: Video games."
The games offer a unique way to build social skills because games were chosen that require cooperation and teamwork.
"We focus on multiplayer, cooperative and collaborative games that require teamwork and encourage several players to work together to accomplish goals in the game," Barton said. "Communication then becomes necessary to succeed in the game."
Parents tell Barton they have seen changes in their children who are participating.
"All of our parents report improvement in social skills and behavior, especially after multiple events," Barton said. "The kids look forward to the events, some even count down the days. We serve families in Cabell, Lincoln, Putnam, and Kanawha counties.
"One family even drives three hours from Mercer County to participate every month. Their son talks about how much fun he has all month."
Barton said the group also has board games and arts and crafts. Minecraft is a popular video game among participants.
"I think we have five different versions of it for the different consoles," Barton said. "A few regulars just discovered 'Goat Simulator' and had fun sharing it with everyone else."
The grant was a way to get the program started, but like all things it cost money to continue. An online fundraiser raised about $1,000 and now Barton is starting to reach out to local businesses for support.
"Even with the equipment we have already and the space donated, we spend about $100 a month on refreshments and batteries," Barton said. "We spend another $50 to $100 a month replacing games or equipment. As we grow, we'll need more equipment. I'm in desperate need of additional controllers for consoles. Any consoles - we use Xbox 360, PS 3 & 4, Xbox One, Wii U, and Nintendo Switch."
Down the road Barton hopes to invest in virtual reality equipment.
"We'd like a VR system - aside from games, there are some new social skills programs which could prove interesting," he said.
For more information or if you'd like to help with a donation, contact WV Autism on Facebook or at email@example.com.
If you go
Tri-State residents interested in joining a local gaming group can check out Special FX Gaming as they have events throughout the year.
UPCOMING EVENT: Special FX Gamers Group Back To School Pool Party
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 17
TIME: 7-9 p.m.
LOCATION: Dawson Pool (map)
MORE INFORMATION: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 740-547-7783