My name is Ian Hedges and I have Asperger’s Syndrome also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. I know first-hand how it feels to have every door to society closed in your face because this world is geared for “Normal People” and people like me are left marginalised. Life for an “Aspie” in the 80’s and 90’s was absolutely horrendous. The suicide rate amongst autistic people is significantly higher than those who are neuro-typical and if you were unlucky enough to attend school in the 90’s and you had autism, you would really know why.
My life has been a struggle, for years and years I felt that I didn’t have a place in the world and that I had to go everywhere apologising for my condition and explaining myself to everyone I would meet. The only time I would ever feel perfectly at peace with myself was when I was playing Backgammon. All the struggles of the world would fade away for an hour and the only thing I had to worry about were pieces on a board. Such a simple life, but even I didn’t realise the therapeutic powers of backgammon until I, quite by accident, stumbled across the Bristol club.
After years of thrashing my dad, I made my UKBGF debut against Ian Tarr and it was only then that I realised how deep the game runs and how much I had to learn. I finished 2nd in that match but was determined to get to the bottom of things and develop into a good player.
The fact that Backgammon is a game with a small factor of luck means that it is frustrating. The cube aspect however is not luck and requires concentration, a cool head under pressure and the ability to put aside previous frustrations and disappointments in order to make a decision which could well be the difference between victory and defeat.
But dealing with frustration for someone with ASD is notoriously difficult, and in those early days at Bristol my ability to deal with my condition was very poor both on and off the board. Personally I often had arguments with my family and other people I would come into contact with and wouldn’t know how to avoid confrontation until I was right in the thick of it. When It came to backgammon, if I was trailing in a match I would cube recklessly and in anger, I would drop in fear of what might happen and I would be so affected by what was happening in the moment that I wouldn’t stop to consider the bigger picture about where I was in the match and what I needed to do in order to win.
As I have grown more experienced within the game, I have learned that you need to disconnect your emotions and think in a cold and calculating way. Consider the long game and forget what has gone before. What I didn’t realise until recently was that as my abilities with the cube grew and as my ability to control my emotions on the board became greater my abilities to control my emotions off the board also started to develop. In fact, my life has drastically improved as a result of playing backgammon at club Bristol and that made me think…
If backgammon can have such a positive impact on me, then surely it could similarly impact other people on the spectrum? In which case, should we not be trying to find a way to encourage all people on the spectrum into the game? After all, whilst Backgammon may be therapeutic to the person with autism, they themselves often possess the skills to become extremely talented players if only their talents were not ignored as is so often the case with this neurological condition.
But here lies the number 1 problem!!!
Autistic people almost always suffer from social anxiety as well as having a complete lack of curiosity, preferring instead to stay within their own comfort zones. The reason for this is because considerations for their condition and things that might adversely affect them are, generally speaking, ignored. But what if the UKBGF decided to change all of that, where would they start?
Whilst there is within the Backgammon community, an understanding of common decency, the ability to enforce rules of etiquette doesn’t appear to be in place and as such I have (Very occasionally) been sworn at during matches and intimidated by opponents without any tangible ruling to call upon for help. For someone with autism this can be a frightening thing to have happen to them and would certainly break their concentration and give an unfair advantage to their opponent. What if the UKBGF introduced some etiquette standards that could be enforced? For example:-
- At the start of the match, salutations should be offered with a hand shake.
- When the match is finished closing courtesies should be observed by saying “thank you for the match” or something similar and offering a shake of hands.
- When you double, place the cube gently in the centre, and say double. If you take, put it on your side and say “take”. If you drop, be sure to put the cube in its proper place and say “drop” or “pass” clearly.
- Any contact with or motion with a hand towards the doubling cube constitutes a binding act of cube offering and must be either accepted or dropped. It could be considered cheating if you reach for the cube in order to see if the opponent reaches for the score sheet or reached to take the cube.
- Always shake your dice at least three times and roll them out, and if you do shake them at all, you are committed to rolling the dice and not using the cube.
- Do not shake while your opponent is playing or thinking about a play as this could be considered to be a type of gamesmanship, instead be quiet and still while your opponent is thinking or playing.
- Do not roll until your opponent has clearly picked up his dice. Rolling too soon or just as they are picking up his dice, can only create conflict as to whether or not the roll counted, or whether or not the player had truly finished thinking about their play. And quick rolling unfairly rushes the opponent into playing.
- An opponent should never point out their opponent’s luck, or lucky rolls, either during or after a match. Whether they mean to or not, pointing out an opponent’s luck suggests that they are winning or have won due to that luck and not due to their skill. In any event, this has the potential to cause ill will and unpleasantness.
- Do not engage in conversations with spectators or people at the next table. Don’t talk or handle your mobile phone, listen to headphones, or anything else but give your full, polite attention to the match, If you wish to stop and copy a board position for later analysis, ask your opponent if they mind first. Do it quickly and don’t do it too often.
- No player should direct profanity at their opponent, cursing their luck is one thing but becoming confrontational or overly aggressive is unacceptable.
- If a player feels that his opponent is failing to uphold these rules they should point this out or ask for a neutral observer to oversee the game. If the infringements continue to a sufficient degree then the director should be informed in order to make a decision as to how the match should continue. The director should have the power to issue a disqualification in extreme cases.
Introducing something like this would really help people like me and certainly help to avoid stressful situations, but the problem isn’t just how people act, often it can be the very environment in which club nights are held.
People who are affected by autism often have light sensitivity issues and loud swirling noises can leave them feeling disorientated and dizzy. I recognise that this is a problem for me so I always find a place to play where the light is slightly lower and the noise is not so much of a factor but when I was in Manchester to play in the UK Clubs Championships, it was virtually impossible to sit anywhere where I could concentrate. The location was a large casino, not dissimilar in size to the casino in Bristol where I play and I understood that going to a major event would mean hundreds of people all talking at the same time, however there was huge spaces given to very bright flashing lights. I struggled in this situation, sometimes it was possible to sit in such a way where I wasn’t affected by these, and other times not, but is it really necessary to have them on during the event? Had someone asked for them to be turned off, would this have been a problem? If the UKBGF had assessed the location, is this something that they would have been able to fix in advance of the occasion? Casinos often represent a good place to play due to their large playing areas, but does that mean that we have to accept the area we’re given or can we ask for reasonable adjustments to be made in order to help us appeal to a wider audience? It seems like an easy fix for me and this really isn’t about assigning blame. It is a fact that the needs of people with my condition are systematically ignored, not because someone hates people with autism, but because it is not properly understood by most people. We therefore have a huge opportunity to change the world that we live in if we would only show the courage and desire to do so.
But the problems aren’t just how people act or even the environment that we play in, sometimes it can be as simple as feeling socially anxious and not being able to break into the cliques that exist within club life.
I often take a family member or my wife to events because it’s quite a stressful experience for me to walk into a big room where there are huddles of people all talking between themselves even if I do know many people in the room. Those who are affected by autism would very often be put off by this or feel anxious in these situations. Once the matches start, the problems stop but then between matches it becomes a problem all over again. What if the UKBGF appointed someone in each of it’s clubs to arrive early and actively talk to people as they come in. For new or shy members of a club, it would make a world of difference and having a warmer welcome would encourage people to return for events week after week.
A really good example of someone doing this with great effect would be Sean Jones at the Worcester club, he makes himself busy with checking in on players to make sure they’re ok and as someone with autism, I can tell you that this makes me feel far more comfortable with attending club matches there. Having 1 or 2 people with the specific job of making people feel comfortable within their surroundings would enable those who have autism to feel much happier in attending match nights more regularly.
But, remember the number 1 problem? Autistic people almost always suffer from social anxiety as well as having a complete lack of curiosity, preferring instead to stay within their own comfort zones.
What if the UKBGF made a commitment each year to try and change this?
Sunday 2nd April 2017 is National Autism Awareness Day, What if the UKBGF spoke with the National Autistic Society and then together they set up an annual charity event up and down the country?
We have over 40 registered clubs within the UKBGF, so why not get each club to organise an open day for the press, autistic people and their caregivers to come and learn the game in the morning and early afternoon, thus raising awareness of the condition and at the same time allowing autistic people the opportunity to become hooked on a game that may well help them to cope better in the future. In the evening, a charity tournament could take place with at least half of the proceeds going to the NAS. Not only could the UKBGF raise a large amount of money for a good cause, together we could also reduce the daily stress and anxiety caused to some of the 700,000 people living with Autism; I have seen the way my life has been changed and improved by playing backgammon. I have learned how to shrink my problems to pieces on a board, but also Backgammon has given me the life skills to deal with my problems after the dice have been packed away.
People with autistic spectrum disorder need to be directly engaged as they will often not engage in new things by themselves. They need to have a clear understanding of, not only the rules of the game, but the behavioural rules so that they can, with confidence, conform to a set standard. They also need these rules to protect themselves from hostile situations. When people get aggressive whilst playing them, they need to have a system in place that protects them. They need to be able to quote something to an official and feel that the rules are on their side when they are being intimidated, but also, they need to know what side of the board they shake into and how many times is an acceptable amount to shake the dice before throwing their dice.
More than this, people with autistic spectrum disorder need an environment that they will want to play in and continue to play in. Despite having social anxiety, people with autistic spectrum disorder are highly social characters that want to be engaged. By creating a system where they are engaged in conversation and encouraged to get involved in a social capacity within club events before and after matches have taken place, you will also be creating a system that allows people on the spectrum to feel like they genuinely matter.
It is for this reason I would love the UKBGF to consider adopting all of my suggestions as one, they can’t work individually.
If you encourage people with ASD into backgammon events, but don’t provide an environment where they can feel comfortable in playing then there is no point in encouraging them to join. If you have the environment where they can play, but the social networking at events is closed off to them or the actions of someone whilst playing a match made them feel insecure or worried, then they won’t continually return for more events. It’s only by providing the full package for consideration that you will be able to create and maintain the platform to encourage people with ASD into the world of backgammon and expect them to remain for the long term.
The truth is, people with autism are incredible and had diagnosis been available in the 1940’s, they would be credited with breaking the Enigma code. The UKBGF have the opportunity to really change lives in this case so the question is, shouldn’t we be getting as many of these people involved in the game as possible?
Ian is a member of the UKBGF Diversity and Disability Committee, who are working on a wide range of issues affecting backgammon players.