Auti-Sim: The game that shows you how it feels to have autism

“SHUT UP. Why can’t I make it stop?”

An interesting thing happened when I started to play Auti-Sim. My browser, laden with tabs upon tabs and massive, complex web pages froze. I couldn’t close it, I couldn’t click anything. Everything on my laptop became unresponsive. Everything, that is, except the cacophony of distant screaming and phantom voices on Auti-Sim.

Auti-Sim
Auti-Sim starts out with your character standing alone in relative quiet

Auti-Sim is a game created by three programmers which shows the player what it feels like to live with the sensory overload associated with some types of autism. It has so far been hailed by those with the condition as a frighteningly accurate representation of their lives. And this is why, as soon as the words “SHUT UP. Why can’t I make it stop?” left my mouth half an hour ago, my stomach dropped. Because that’s the whole point. Somehow it was a chilling realisation that all I had to do was Ctrl-Alt-Delete my way out of this. Someone with autism doesn’t have that option.

Auti-Sim
When you approach other characters, it’s difficult to make out their blank faces through the visual white noise, and the shrieking and jabbering gets louder

It’s a very difficult ‘game’ to play. Everything is frustrating, and I soon found myself losing patience. Frothy visual white noise clouded the screen, and faceless children stood ‘looking’ at me. Two minutes in and it felt like someone was tickling my insides. I was irritated and had to keep looking away.

I approached a roundabout in the virtual playground. A child’s voice repeated the alphabet over and over again. As I approached this other child, my ‘vision’ began to speckle and blur and it was extremely disorientating.  The only thing that abated all of the chattering and wailing was by running away to stand alone so let my vision return to normal and to get some sliver of ‘normality’ back. But even then, unfamiliar screams plagued me, and the frustration became too intense. I had to close the game.

Auti-Sim
The moment you get too close to another person, the screaming and visual disturbances begin again

I know a few people with autism, but obviously I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to live like this. I’m aware that not everyone with autism will experience the sensory hypersensitivity, but what I do know is that even one per cent of this infuriating maelstrom would be enough to send me into a seething rage every minute of every day.  This game really highlights why it isn’t always easy for someone with autism to interact with others. It’s unbearable. The only way I could regain any vague semblance of ‘normality’ whilst playing Auti-Sim was by leaving all of these frightening, blank-faced characters and standing on my own.

Auti-Sim
Only when you are away from everyone else does the chaos begin to wane

Several years ago, I actually found a similar game said to recreate the experience of someone with schizophrenia. Unfortunately I can’t find that game at the moment*, but that was another alarming insight into mental illness. Pictures undulated on the walls, voices threatened me and every day sounds were distorted almost beyond recognition. Again, I can’t say how accurate it was, but I think that this sort of experience, if done properly, can only be a good thing. Without having the condition yourself, it can be impossible to comprehend what a sufferer of any mental illness goes through, and anything which might provoke discussion and empathy can only be a step forward.

*[one of my lovely Twitter followers found the schizophrenia ‘game‘ I was talking about – you’ll need to download Second Life to run it, and you can download a free trial to use for a week]

As someone without autism, I have no idea if this game really does accurately reflect what it is like. I must admit, if this is what autism is like, I can honestly say I had no idea. It’s very easy to sit in my Linguistics lectures at university and learn about how autism can impair a child’s theory of mind or impair the ability to use language, but if this is a fair representation of the condition, I must say that I’m shocked and I truly wish there was a way to make all of this noise and confusion go away for anyone for whom this is a reality.

What do you think? Is this overwhelming sensory overload an accurate portrayal of autism? Are you autistic, and if so, what do you make of this game?

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