Making meaningful worlds: role-playing subcultures and the autism spectrum

Cult Med Psychiatry. 2015 Jun;39(2):299-321. doi: 10.1007/s11013-015-9443-x.


Every summer, a group of role-playing gamers gathers in an American town. Dressed up as moon goddesses, mad scientists, and other fantastical characters, they act out elaborate, improvised narratives of transformation, destruction, and redemption. For several summers, this group, who I call the Journeyfolk, ran a camp for teenagers on the autism spectrum, engaging campers in therapeutic reconfigurations of self and social role. Through this folk healing practice, the meaning of autism was itself transformed; what had been a source of isolation became a source of commonality and community. This paper takes the camp as a case study for examining the co-productive relationship between culture and neurodiversity. Cognitive tendencies often found in autism are often thought to preclude socio-cultural participation. However, such tendencies can also facilitate the co-creation of innovative cultural spaces, through processes of affinity and affiliation. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork at the camp, I identify three sites of congruity between the culture of the camp and the cognitive and phenomenological experiences associated with autism, at which this "work of culture" (Obeysekere in The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990) took place: the structure of social interactions within roleplaying games, the narratives enacted within these games, and the interpersonal relationships within which the games were embedded.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / ethnology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / rehabilitation*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Residential Treatment / methods*
  • Role Playing*