A bestselling author has told how he broke his autistic son’s silence and built a relationship with him – through MINECRAFT.
Keith Stuart, 45, based his critically-acclaimed novel A Boy Made of Blocks on his struggle to communicate with his eldest child, Zac, until he was eight years old.
The bright youngster could understand other people but had speech problems and grew frustrated when he couldn’t find words to convey his feelings.
Despite suffering from extreme anxiety, throwing tantrums and lashing out at Keith and mum Morag 44, paediatricians said he wasn’t on the spectrum.
But after numerous tests and appointments, Zac was finally diagnosed with autism aged eight in late 2012.
Shortly afterwards, dad-of-two Keith, who is video games editor at The Guardian, was sent a new Xbox 360 demo game called Minecraft.
The game – which allows users to build their own world – has been “life-changing” because it has helped Zac, 11, find his voice.
He now spends a few hours a week playing with his dad and little brother Albie, nine at home in Frome, Somerset.
Keith, who based bestselling novel ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’ on Zac’s story, said: “I had this inkling he might like it because you’re not told to do anything, you can just do what you like.
“As soon as I switched it on and showed him what to do, he was off. He completely understood the game. He was making interesting buildings and expressing himself.
“It also helped him increase his vocabulary. He had to explain things to his brother so he had to learn all the words for things like iron, wood and steel.
“There was a period of time when he found it difficult when he wanted a peanut butter sandwich but he could use words like obsidian, which is a mineral.
“We got the the stage that every dinner time he came home from school and everything he wanted to say he started with, ‘In Minecraft…’
“The he would tell us what he had done that day. We would grown inwardly when he said it, but it was totally new because he always used to answer us with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
“It gave him the confidence to join in – it helped him socially and with his vocabulary, and it also helped him creatively.
“He was never patient enough to do painting or draw pictures or colouring in, so we didn’t really know him in that way.
“But Minecraft allowed him to build things and express himself so it was really fascinating.
“I could go into his world and he could show me it. It was like being invited into his creative mind, which we had never been able to do before.”
He added: “It’s almost like a treehouse for us, where we can go and hang out and talk.
“It’s definitely been life-changing for us.”
As a young child, Zac had a vocabulary of around six words while his friends could speak 20 or 30, was bad at transitions and struggled to communicate.
Keith said: “When he was little he would have lots of tantrums and was uncommunicative. I was having to carry him to school. It was heartbreaking.
“He would cry and throw stuff around or hit us. We were putting his coat on and he would take it off and throw it.
“It was really hard. He could understand us but it was so frustrating when he wanted to tell us about his day at school. He just couldn’t grasp the words.
“We would try to guess what he was telling us but if we guessed wrong two or three times, he would break down because he was so frustrated and angry.”
In spite of his speech problems and difficulties in the classroom, Zac had an impressive understanding of technology from the age of three.
He could use an iPad, worked out the button system on the TV to get Peppa Pig to come on and enjoyed playing simple video games like Little Big Planet and Toca Boca.
But it wasn’t until Keith introduced him to Minecraft that the barriers between them began to fall away.
He has since written a book based on his experience with the game, called ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’, which is now being sold in 25 countries.
He said: “I wanted to convey video games as a positive and creative thing. They allow you to explore worlds in the same way books and movies do.
“I also wanted to talk about autism and try and inform people who don’t know much about it that it is OK and their children just see things in a different way.
He added: “Although Minecraft is a part of the story, this is not a book about games for gamers.
“It’s a book about parenthood and about finding places where you can really talk to your children.”
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