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Warhammer & autism: building resilience, friendships, & fine motor skills

It's Children's Mental Health week and I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk about something that really helps my son's well-being.

Those of you who have read my blog about Dungeons and Dragons will know my son has a passion for fantasy adventure. Something about Dungeons and Dragons (Dnd) captured his imagination in a way that nothing else really had and it soon became his special interest, bringing him loads of excitement and happiness. Well, not long after he started playing DnD, Jamie from Bristol Adventurers' Guild, suggested we pay a visit to Games Workshop, to have a look at the Warhammer figures, and a new passion was discovered.

For those of you who haven't come across it before, I would describe Warhammer as a fantasy game involving miniature armies that you build and paint, and then play against each other to see who's army wins. Within that though there are lots of different elements, all of which have had a really positive effect on my son's well-being.

Firstly there is the collecting, building and painting of the miniature armies. When we first came across Warhammer my son was very worried about painting these tiny models. He had always hated art, and struggled with fine motor skills, so the level of detail needed was pretty terrifying. To start with I had to paint them for him while he watched, but then gradually with time and practice his confidence grew - as did his fine motor skills. He now paints amazing models which he is hugely proud of, as he should be (these are two of his!). This has been a huge boost to his self-esteem, and can also be a hook into learning. His science teacher used his love of Warhammer to encourage him to create a brilliant adventure story, including amazing photos of his models using all sorts of special effects (created using science experiments!).

Secondly there are the stories - almost like myths - surrounding the game. Each of the characters has a complicated background story. When my son left school he was so traumatised he could not bring himself to read for a whole year (despite actually being a very able reader) and I spent a year reading him Harry Potter books, every afternoon. Warhammer books (and the accompanying magazine 'White Dwarf' which he adores) have reignited his love of reading and we now can't tear him away from them, which is really amazing to see. Again it shows what can be achieved by using special interests to support learning, and really tailoring things to the individual.

As well as reading about the characters he also loves talking about them. As his family we get to hear all about the characters and new facts he's learned. However, it's always best to talk about things you love with other people who share your passion, and so during the last lockdown 'Paint Club' was born. A group of kids who enjoy Warhammer meet on Skype and paint their models and chat about all things Warhammer related (facilitated by Bristol Adventurers Guild). We have seen our son develop a group of real friends - even socialising independently over the Christmas break via Minecraft and their own skype/painting sessions. It's such a joy to see, as this is something that is so hard to achieve (as it is for so many young autistic people).

There is of course also playing the game itself. We've not majored on this yet as we can't meet with other people who know how to play. However, we have done our best to learn and to play with him, and already can see what the game brings to the table: maths (there's a lot of comlicated dice action); dealing with challenges (the throw of the dice might mean things don't go your way); and of course the opportunity to socialise with people who share your special interest (when that's allowed again!).

I always emphasise the importance of recognising, respecting and using special interests to boost self-esteem and engagement. I'd really encourage parents to think about how this can be done with their child's special interest, and if you have a young person who enjoys fantasy stories and games I would really recommend having a look into Warhammer!


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