In Video Games, Contradictions of Being Autistic with ADHD Make Sense

Kylie Noble6 minute read

The following contains topics that could be triggering to some readers. (Self-harm, hospitalization, death)

I am alone, in a hospital. Well, not completely — there are the nurses, doctors, and the other children of course. I am not interested in them. Nurses try to get me to speak to and play with the other children. I resist. I am three years old and I have a chest infection.

I am alone, in a hospital. And I am content.

Perhaps some of this is to do with memory. I was born three months premature, almost dying twice. I spent two months largely alone in an incubator. It is a peculiar pattern in my early childhood, I am afraid of many things such as other people, dogs, God, how I will ever remember the directions to places when I grow up, and public speaking. I am not afraid of hospitals nor being alone. When my dad comes to visit I stun him by telling him after 10 minutes, “Daddy you should get home, to feed the cows. And mummy will have your dinner ready.”

My mum buys me a Polly Pocket game after I am admitted to the hospital. It is electronic and powered by batteries. I have to bring Polly to the end of the path, skipping, without falling over. This is most of what I remember from the hospital stay, and I play it from day to night. I am immersed in another world, so I am happy.

Polly Pocket console for video game adhd feature

I am not alone, but I feel that I am. 

My Granny, who lived in my family home from my birth, has died. I am eight years old and deeply distraught. Partly as I was not prepared — no one had told me she was dying (she died at home). Nineteen years on and I remember the details of that night so well, the smells in particular. The coffin, and the new way my Granny smells, in it. A traditional Irish “wake” follows. For several days our house is filled with hundreds of people visiting to pay respects.

That Christmas I got a Game Boy Advance and Pokemon Silver as presents. Like in my hospital visit, I am immersed in another reality. I am happy and calm traveling across Johto. 

In February 2020, at age 25, I was diagnosed as autistic. This explained my happiness in solitude and a lot of other parts of my childhood. The two-page school report at age four stating that I was happiest when reading or painting alone. That I was “inclined to be a loner.” Tidying my friend’s bedroom at age five instead of playing or talking to anyone at her birthday party. A struggle to accept change and process emotions — destabilizing reactions to finding out Santa wasn’t real, and deaths in my family. Taking the rules of my childhood church more literally and more seriously than my peers.

pokemon gotta catch em all silver edition

However, I was diagnosed with ADHD before this in April 2019. ADHD didn’t begin to emerge fully until adulthood when living independently. Missing most classes at university, unable to focus on study, impulsive decisions, seeking excitement and conflict. The peak; flying to Israel alone, with no health insurance, and ending up being held as a security concern flying out when it was discovered I had been to Palestine (my Arabic bus ticket, in my purse). 

By the point I was diagnosed, I had been moving jobs, houses, and locations almost constantly since graduation in 2016. Eighteen addresses and a pattern of quitting jobs on impulse. I was at the point of breakdown and burnout. I struggled to function at the most basic level — eating, sleeping, thinking. I was exhausted and sinking into the most intense depression of my life. I ended up at A & E one night, actively suicidal for the first time.

That was over a year ago, and I am alive, and I am well. There’s a range of reasons for this, leaving London, living alone, becoming self-employed, completing a course of counseling, and going on a stronger dose of antidepressants, and video games. During the winter lockdown in England this year, I felt my autistic enjoyment of solitude was starting to wear thin after 10 months. My ADHD was coming to the fore again. When I feel the peak of my ADHD boredom and frustration it is a physical and almost painful experience. It’s like I want to explode, and there is so much energy inside me and I find it unbearable. I have often detonated into self-destruction: conflict with a boss or a relative, quitting a job, throwing myself into chaos in some way. Because chaos is never boring.

Desperately trying to think of a way to control these urges, I arrived at memories of Polly Pocket and Pokémon. Entering into a virtual world helped me cope with my real one, and In the games, I could escape my anxiety, grief, and isolation. 

nintendo switch video game adhd feature use only

I bought a Nintendo Switch in January 2021 and it has transformed my life. To be autistic with ADHD is a huge contradiction. What one part of me wants the other cannot bear. Solitude, separation, quiet and stability, community, connection, busyness, and change. I have to try to find a way to balance the right amount of each or I’ll be on the path to falling apart again. 

Within video games, what is mostly a conflict within me, unites. Video games provide structure, routine, familiarity, suspense, challenge, and novelty. I am especially drawn to RPGs and visual novels. Stardew Valley has become a comfort. When my own world feels too much, too unstable, I return to Pelican Town where I repeat tasks done 100s of times before. Feeding my chickens, watering the crops, picking up shells on the beach. Yet, the townspeople change and react to my interaction.

These kinds of games provide me with a safe way of socializing, I may upset someone or hurt them but I am not hurting real people in games. Communication is one of the greatest challenges for autistic people, our instincts are to be direct and honest which is often perceived as inappropriate or rude.

When I am restless and bored I can travel to other lives and worlds. In Syberia, I traveled across eastern Europe. In Gone Home and If Found, I returned to the past to find affinity and understanding in stories of queer young people struggling to be who they are in hostile environments. Without leaving my house I am able to explore new locations. And more recently I have started playing Pokémon Go. The game has pulled me out of a bout of mild depression. It has gotten me out of my bed and house when I am feeling low and lonely.

Within video games, I find a conciliation within myself of which I cannot experience anywhere else.

You can read more Why I Play experiences here.

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