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For two men with autism, 1,000 Miles Apart, Gaming was a portal to friendship



Chris Lopes and Caleb Stephens didn't have many friends for years. They grew up 1,000 miles apart, the two had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when they were younger and always found social interactions uncomfortable. The exception for both had been their brothers. But they both lost their brothers, and the only real friendships they had had.

Like many people with autism, they turned to games and met people online.

"I've always had trouble talking to people face to face and making direct eye contact," says Caleb, 22, who lives at Jonesboro, Ark., And takes online courses to become pharmacy technicians. "That kind of thing scares me."

Gail Nedbalsky began taking his son, Chris Lopes, to the Island Gamers Club in Bohemia, N.Y., so he could meet other youth with autism.


Photo:

Rick Wenner for the Wall Street Journal

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"When you are in reality you have to go up to people and form conversations, but when you are online you are behind a screen and it takes that shame away," says Chris, 21, who lives on New York's Long Island with his mother and works at a company that scans documents for law firms and doctor's offices.

Researchers have long studied the effects of online gambling on people with autism but findings are mixed. Some studies suggest that online games can open up a world of friendship that would otherwise not exist for people with autism and teach important social skills as collaboration. Other studies show that people with autism can be so immersed in games that they do not spend enough time in real-life situations.

Just last year, Chris and Caleb met on the Discord chat service. A common passion for games, combined with the ability to communicate without having to follow personal social signals, helped them get away from isolation. Their friendship and other friendship that they developed through online games helped them become less afraid of meeting people. Their worried parents are watching, have found hope.

But it wasn't easy to get to that point.

Chris Lopes, others from the left, with friends he met through online games at a conference in Philadelphia.


Photo:

JMA images

Seven years ago, Caleb and his family were in a car accident that killed Cahill, one of Caleb's two younger brothers. The boys, who were home-schooled, had done everything together.

"When we went to a home school group, Cahill began interacting with other children and urged Caleb to join. He bridged that gap for Caleb," his mother, Natalie Mobley, said. "For a long time he didn't want to talk about anything to do with the wreck. In fact, he didn't want to talk about his brother for a while."

Caleb, who was injured in the crash, had to stay in a hospital bed at home some months later to heal operations. Because he couldn't do much, he spent most of his time playing video games.

Ms. Mobley was grateful for the departure, but she was worried that he would ever make friends again. "I was so scared when his brother passed away that he would shut down," she said.

When Caleb managed to get out of bed, their time was filled with medical examinations, counseling times, and guitar lessons. Even now, she said, "His therapist encourages him to go out once a week and try something new so he doesn't get too focused just on games."

Chris's parents divorced when he was 6. His mother, Gail Nedbalsky, continued a man with three sons and bought a house with him. "They were like brothers to Chris," she said. "He loved them."

Ms. Nedbalsky and her boyfriend split up when Chris was 10. They continued to let the boys meet, but after about six months she said her ex-boyfriend stopped it. "Chris was devastated," she said. "It killed me."

Chris rarely left the house. "He would rather be in his room and play video games."

Chris Lopes, center, on the Island Gamers Club, a group of children and young adults with autism who share love for video games.


Photo:

Rick Wenner for the Wall Street Journal

"The myth I always try to debunk is that people with ASD do not want friends. They do, but it causes so much anxiety that it is often easier not to try," says Reena B. Patel, a psychologist and behavioral analyst who working with children who have autism. "One of the things people with autism have difficulty doing is choosing a topic of common interest with people, so for people who meet through games, they give them something to start a conversation. "

Things changed for Chris a few years back. He started going to the Island Gamers Club on the weekends. Located in an office building in Bohemia, NY, it was started by a boy's mother with autism and is now hosting a crowd of 80 that will play video games and board games, eat snacks and just hang out.

Chris also began to meet other players online in Discord chat groups, called servers, and expressed interest in meeting them in game conventions. y was both elated and scared, his first trip being a follow-up in Connecticut, over Long Island Sound.

"It was his first time going somewhere without me. When I knocked him off at the ferry I waved and went," What do I do? "I didn't sleep all weekend," she said. But Chris had a good time and kept in touch with texts.

So when Chris told her he met Caleb online last year and wanted to see him, Nedbalsky was less scared.

Chris and Caleb first met in March last year when Caleb joined the Discord server that Chris belonged to. The two started texting and then proceeded to voice chat. "At first I didn't know he had autism," Chris said. "It sounded like he had signs, but I didn't want to accept anything."

After reading each other, Chris suggested that they meet in person. Their mothers switched over Facebook and talked by phone. In November, Chris and his mother flew to Arkansas. Miss Nedbalsky got a hotel room and Chris stayed with Caleb's family for three days.

Even though they had tied online, it was only difficult to adapt to each other personally. "It was definitely a bit of a misalignment. At first it felt a bit strange, like" Oh, this person I met online, I now see physically. "It took me some time to warm up that online level, Chris says. 19659003] After a couple of days it got better, "Caleb said.

The two went bowling and to the arcade, ate at Chili and of course played games.

Caleb has also met other friends he found at Discord, including a young couple in Memphis, Tenn, and a young man in another part of Arkansas.

Although he has become more social, Mobley says that Caleb can take personal interactions just for so long. "After an hour or two, he's ready to have his alone time," she said. "He puts on his headphones and pulls a little."

Ms. Patel warns that people with autism can be targets for bullying and that the parents must be aware of who their children meet online. Discord has its share of bullying. But there are also lots of servers where the players make friends and feel secure.

"I've talked to Caleb over the years about being careful. When he met the couple from Memphis, my husband and I took him to a restaurant to meet them and we sat at another table," Mobley said.

Caleb and Chris text or talk to each other now every day, and Caleb saves up to fly to Long Island later this year to see Chris again.

"My brother was my best friend. In the last few years before the crash we played" Spelunky, "Caleb says.

" It's a game I and Chris are playing now. "

Write to Julie Jargon at julie.jargon @ wsj.com


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