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For two men with autism, 1,000 miles apart, gaming was a portal to friendship

Chris Lopes and Caleb Stephens did not have many friends for years. Grown at a distance of 1,000 miles, the two were diagnosed as younger people with an autism spectrum disorder in which social interactions were always perceived as unpleasant. The exception for both had been their brothers. But both have lost their brothers and the only real friendships they have had.

Like many people with autism, they turned to gambling and online meetings.

"I've always had a problem talking to people face to face and direct eye contact," said 22-year-old Caleb, who lives in Jonesboro, Ark., At home and attends online classes to pharmacy technician become. "That scares me."

Gail Nedbalsky began bringing her son Chris Lopes to the Island Gamers Club in Bohemia, NY, to meet other young people with autism.

Rick Wenner for the Wall Street Journal

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"When you're in real life, you have to turn to people and have conversations, but when you're online, you're behind a screen, and the shyness is decreasing. Said Chris, 21, who lives with his mother on New York's Long Island and works in a company that searches documents for law firms and medical practices.

Researchers have long studied the effects of online gambling on people with autism, but Some studies indicate that online games can open up a world of friendships that would not otherwise exist for people with autism, and convey important social skills such as cooperation, and other studies show that people with autism are in the same place Games can be in-depth that they do not spend enough time in real-world situations.

Chris and Caleb met in the Discord chat service last year, a shared passion for play, coupled with the ability to communicate without personal social involvement Having to follow clues helped overcome the isolation, their friendship – and other friendships who have closed them through online games – helped each of them to be less afraid of meeting people. Her worried parents, who are watching, have found hope.

But it was not easy to get to that point.

Chris Lopes, second from left, with friends he met at a convention in Philadelphia through online games.


JMA Images

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

"Whenever we went to a home school group, Cahill started interacting with other children and encouraged Caleb to join in. He bridged that gap for Caleb," said his mother, Natalie Mobley. "He did not want to have anything to do with the wreck for a long time, in fact he did not want to talk about his brother for a while."

Caleb, who had been injured in the accident, then had to stay home in a hospital bed for several months As he could not do much, he spent most of his time playing video games.

Ms. Mobley was grateful for the change, but she was worried that he would ever make friends again. " I was so scared when his brother died that he would close, "she said.

When Caleb got out of bed, her time was spent on physiotherapy appointments, counseling sessions, and guitar lessons, even now she said," His Therapist encourages him to come out once a week and try something new so he does not just focus on games. "

Chris & # 39; s parents divorced when he was 6 years old he, Gail Nedbalsky went out with a man with three sons and bought a house with him. "They became like brothers to Chris," she said. "He worshiped her."

wife. Nedbalsky and her boyfriend split up when Chris was 10 years old. They kept the boys meeting, but after about six months, she said, her ex-boyfriend put an end to it. "Chris was devastated," she said. "That killed me."

Chris seldom left the house. "He prefers to play in his room to play video games."

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


Back Wenner for the Wall Street Journal

"The myth I always try to expose is that people with ASD do not want to have friends, they do, but they are so worried that it's often easier not to try," said Reena B. Patel, a psychologist and behavioral analyst who works with autistic children. "One of the things that people with autism find difficult to do is to discuss a topic of mutual interest with people. For people who meet through games, there's something to start a conversation right there. "

Things changed for Chris a few years ago, and he went to the Island Gamers Club that weekend Set in an office building in Bohemia, NY, it was founded by the mother of a boy with autism and now houses a crowd of 80 people who play video games and board games, eat snacks and just hang out.

Chris also started meeting others Playing online in discord chat groups called servers, they expressed interest in meeting them at gaming conferences, and Mrs. Nedbalsky was both excited and scared, and his first trip was to a meeting in Connecticut on Long Island Sound

"It was his first time traveling without me anywhere and when I dropped him off at the ferry, I waved and continued," What am I doing? "I have that not slept all weekend, "she said. But Chris had a great time and kept in touch with texts.

When Chris told her that he had met Caleb online last year and wanted to meet him, Mrs. Nedbalsky was less anxious.

Chris and Caleb met for the first time in March last year when Caleb joined a Discord server that included Chris. The two first wrote an SMS and then went to the voice chat. "At first, I did not know he had autism," Chris said. "It sounded like it had signs, but I did not want to accept anything."

After Chris got to know each other better, he suggested that they meet in person. Their mothers have connected via Facebook and phoned. In November, Chris and his mother flew to Arkansas. Ms. Nedbalsky got a hotel room and Chris stayed with Caleb's family for three days.

Although they had connected online, it was initially difficult to personally adapt to each other. "There was definitely some misalignment. At first it felt a bit strange, like, "Oh, this person I met online and now I see physically." It took awhile for me to warm up to this online level again, "Chris said," but after a few days it has improved, "Caleb said.

The two went bowling and went to the arcade, eating chili Of course, they also played.

Caleb also met with other friends he found on Discord, including a young couple in Memphis, Tennessee, and a young man in another part of Arkansas.

Though sociable Caleb can only interact with people for so long. "After an hour or two, he is ready to spend his time alone," she said. "He's going to put on his headphones and pull back a bit." Patel warns people Autism can be a victim of bullying, and parents need to know who their children are online, discord has its share of bullying, but there are also many servers where players can find friends and feel safe. [19659003] "Over the years, I've been careful with Caleb. When he met the couple from Memphis, my husband and I took him to a restaurant to meet them, and we sat down at a different table, "Mobley said.

Caleb and Chris text or talk everyday and Caleb saves money 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 have & # 39; Spelunky & # 39; played.

"This is a game that I and Chris play now."

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

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