A single father quit his job to operate a Minecraft server specifically for children and adults with autism to play the popular multiplayer game with each other, and ended up creating an online community and safe haven on the internet for people with autism and their families.
Stuart Duncan, 40, of Timmins, Ontario, told ABC News that he started the server, called Autcraft, in 2013, because he loved playing Minecraft with his children.
"My oldest son has autism, my youngest son does not, but all three of us love Minecraft," Duncan told ABC News, adding that he also saw so many parents of children with autism reaching out online to try and find other people their children could play Minecraft with.
Duncan said parents were searching for a safe space on the internet for their children with autism to play the game because "anytime they went to a public server they would get bullied. ... The bullies wouldn’t just terrorize them on the game but they would say terrible things."
"I thought, 'I am going to give these kids a place to play where they can just be themselves, and not worry being bullied,'" Duncan said.
He said the response was immediately overwhelming.
"I shared this idea on my Facebook and I got 752 emails in the first 48 hours," he said. "Within eight days I had to upgrade the server package from the bottom tier they had to the top tier that they had."
Currently, the server has 8,000 users, which includes everyone from players with autism to their parents and family members.
Duncan said the server has become a lot more than just a place for children to play video games and has evolved into a community that offers support for people with autism and their families.
"There is a lot more to our server so that kids feel especially safe, and anytime they need help or someone to talk to, we are there," Duncan said.
Duncan said they have also developed many plugins that prevent players from swearing or breaking things or fighting with each other as they play Minecraft.
"On top of all the plugins that protect the kids, the big thing is that it is very heavily monitored, someone is always watching, usually me," Duncan said. "We also give the actual players the responsibility as well, so if someone shows that they are helpful and responsible, then we will give them a rank like junior helper or senior helper and with that they get the ability to mute somebody."
Duncan said that since starting the server, countless parents and families have reached out and thanked him for his work.
"I have heard from so many parents who say that their children are interacting better," Duncan said, adding that many children are less afraid to open up on the server, "because on Autcraft nobody laughs at anyone else."
"I started hearing from players and parents that their children were making friends at school because they were learning how to socialize more," Duncan said.
Duncan said that when he first started Autcraft, he still worked as a web developer, but as more kids on the game started opening up to him, it began to take more of his time and attention, so he eventually quit his job and started running Autcraft full time, relying on support from parents and other benefactors that invest in his project.
"What happened was after about six months or so, a lot of the children, because they felt so comfortable with the server and with me, they would open up to me more and more and then it got to a point where I was talking to two kids per week who were suicidal, because they were bullied, they felt like they didn’t fit it," Duncan said. "It started to interfere with my work.
"I had to make a decision to either not do the server anymore or ask people to support me. I never wanted to charge for the server," Duncan said. "I ended up making less money than I have ever made in my entire life but it was enough."
Duncan said he hopes the server will be able to help people get a better understanding of children with autism.
"There are just such wonderful kids on this server, I kind of want people to see that these kids are so great if only you wouldn’t make them so afraid," Duncan said, adding that when people come to the server, "I encourage them to be the best person they can be, and not be ashamed of any part of themselves.
"Once you can get rid of that fear, that they are not going to be bullied or made fun of, they teach themselves how to read or how to socialize or how to interact," he added.