Gaming with Learning Differences

I’ve seen the question on Twitter, and a couple of other places recently. “How do you GM while coping with ADHD or other learning differences?” Or, “How do you GM with players that have ADHD or other learning differences?” First, I’m going to state quite frankly, there is NO one true way. There are multiple paths you can take to do it.  (I prefer differences over disabilities because of having to explain to my kid that he’s not broken, he’s just different because of bullies in school. That was a heartbreaking conversation and one I wouldn’t wish on anyone to have to do.)

So, first, a little about me. I have a learning difference. I do NOT learn well by reading. (Which is kind of funny when you think about it – I read and write book reviews) I have never been able to learn just by exclusively reading something. In school and college, I had notebook after notebook filled with notes of me writing the same things over and over to help get my mind to simply comprehend. For Josh and my favorite games, we typically buy two copies on paper so that one can be highlighted and sticky noted to my brain’s understanding and the other he can use. I’ve also been diagnosed with ADHD, but because of how little the drugs work for women… well, let’s just say I don’t have them. 

Now, GMing with ADHD is difficult. I do a lot of improv, mostly because of how fast my brain works. For my games I create an outline: This is what we’re doing, this is where we should end up, and here’s a few places in between. I also pre-create the NPCs, mostly because if I didn’t, I’d forget who they were meeting or had met by the next game session. I have found that instead of trying to extensively take notes during a game, due to the digital shift I use OBS to record the session for personal use, then go back over it to take notes. When I did it in person I typically had a notetaker or, with the groups permission, I’d use a voice recorder.

I know people who GM with ADHD and use bullet point lists, others who use a chart, still others who plan extensively to the point that their plans have plans and they have plans for when their plans don’t work. All I can advise is to find what works best for you. Having ADHD isn’t a crime or a bad thing, it’s just a difficulty to work on and part of being human. Everyone has something, this just happens to be one of mine.

GMing for people with ADHD or other learning difficulties can be hard. The most important piece of advice I can give you, is to breathe and try not to get impatient or upset. First, I’ll talk about GMing for ADHD. Sit with them before a session and ask them specifically, ‘What helps you focus?’ For one of my players he would put a single earbud in and listen to music. He would drum his fingers on his thigh, quietly. Another would need periodic breaks so he could go outside and just run around the building because of the nervous energy. For one of the girls, she had to keep her hands moving, so she would sit and knit while we played. The reason why you ask them ‘What helps you?’ is more than just courtesy to them, it’ll be courteous to your other players, by giving them what they need they’re less likely to be disruptive for other players.

GMing for Autism is different. Patience is the key here. First, not everyone is Rainman. I think this bears repeating, NOT EVERYONE IS RAINMAN! I hope that sinks in. Not every autistic child is going to be a savant, and you can be a savant in specific subjects without being autistic. They are NOT mutually causative. People with autism have difficulties, but they don’t deserve disrespect. Next, not all Autism manifests the same so be aware of this. 

So, now to focus on GMing and playing with them. Ask them what they need to help them succeed in the game. My second son who is on the spectrum has a hard time remembering little details, so to help him I created little laminated cards that had the details for his specific abilities. Luckily they’re available for purchase now for several games. I’ve had players who simply needed reassurance that they’re OK. I had one player that needed me to meet them before the session to explain to them what they could expect from me during the game. Things like, ‘During this session there will be a couple of surprises.’ Not so much to ruin the surprise but to where they didn’t have a bad reaction. I didn’t have to tell them WHAT it was, only that it existed. (Of course, most of these were teenagers).

Regarding GMing for learning difficulties such as Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, and Dyslexia, these three things cover Math, handwriting and reading difficulties. To address these, you need to know the specifics of what they need help with, and that comes back to the question, ‘How can I help?’ (are you noticing a theme here?)  My daughter has Dyslexia so she had a hard time reading books unless it was something I had read to her. She worked on it by watching subtitles to her shows. For each of these it requires patience, a willingness to listen and more patience. If they have an issue with the numbers, let them use a calculator. If their handwriting suffers and their notes hard to read, let them use a laptop or a tablet. Are they having a hard time reading the rulebook? Take time to read it with them. Let me tell you, it’s pretty easy to engender loyalty in a player when you spend your time and effort helping them overcome their challenges. And don’t we all want loyal players that want to be in our games regularly? I mean, if we didn’t, why would there be so many jokes about finding groups that can meet consistently?

Now, I know this has rambled a bit, but the thing is, no matter what you do, where you go, or who you are if you interact with people there is going to be someone that needs help. The best way to help them no matter what it is, ask first. ‘How can I help you?’ Don’t assume you know what they need help with, because you’re not in their head.  Communication is the most powerful tool we have, and we need to use it wisely and often. And even though we’ve said it in a previous post, it bears repeating: If you are reading this, roleplaying games are for you. Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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