All is still, until a moaning sob cuts through the darkness. Our heroes hesitate for a second, unsheathe their weapons with caution, and head towards the locked door. A paladin in shining armour, and his demon sidekick, steel themselves for the danger that lies ahead.
Whilst it might seem like a scene pulled straight from the nail-biting finale of Game of Thrones, this story unravels in the backroom of a centre in Buckingham, orchestrated by four imaginative young people.
The Clearly Cool Dungeons and Dragons club meets on Wednesday evenings from 5pm o 7pm, organised by Clearly Speaking, a charity providing support to children and young adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.
So much more than a throwback to the 1980s, Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop role-playing game where players use dice throws and rule sheets to control the actions of characters, has seen a resurgence in its mainstream popularity, thanks to TV shows such as Netflix’s’ Stranger Things.
Now, in Buckingham, it serves a purpose beyond entertaining fantasy fans, as it provides autistic young people, aged 14 to 25, a judgement-free space to let imaginations soar.
“It’s so funny how it went out of style, and has now come back in,” the director of Clearly Speaking Janet Nicks explains, as she prepares hot dogs for the players.
“Our guys have tried mainstream groups, but they often get left out. If they can’t keep up with the rules, they find that there is no space for them.”
The charity aims to solve this problem by providing an accessible session where all needs are met. Janet continues: “We make it suitable for all abilities. If a player struggles with memory, we can always recap on what happened last week and explain it all again.”
As a result, the atmosphere is light and comfortable, yet when the game begins the dungeon master has everyone’s attention. Game faces are on.
Aidan, James, Helen and volunteer Leanne, all strangers before the club first met, play around a table loaded with numerous types of die, and reference books brimming with facts, figures and instruction - yet all of the fun comes from them.
The fellowship of players, which ranges from four to seven members, employ different voices, recreate scenarios physically with gestures such as loading a bow and arrow, and laugh their way through two hours of role playing.
Janet, who uses a wheelchair herself, applauds the creative abilities of every member. “What’s amazing is there are quite a lot of preconceptions about young people on the spectrum; that they have no imagination. That’s not true, they just need to be interested.”
“Whenever I have to step in as dungeon master, I always get pulled up on the rules.” Janet’s role as the straight man of the group goes beyond her typical responsibility to care for the young people and make sure everything stays on track, she is occasionally a mediating character in the game, and she rolls the dice with the understanding of a seasoned pro.
Baldrick, one of James’s two characters, is every bit the classic action hero trope. He’s bull-headed and brash, and the group revel in James’s performance, working together to restrain his devil-may-care approach to danger.
Countless memories are shared of previous adventures, with every member recalling anecdotes and jokes relating to previous experiences that they might not have had without the club.
The National Autistic Society recognise how important this is. “Our recent research revealed that 79% of autistic people feel socially isolated. For many young people a club will be the only social activity they have where they can meet others in a fun, safe and non-judgmental environment.
“Across the UK these kinds of supportive spaces – often run by amazing volunteers – play an essential role in opening up the world for autistic people.”
They estimate that around 700,000 people in the UK are autistic, with the latest studies placing 1.1% of the population in that category. For 2.8 million people, Autism is part of their daily lives.
Clearly Speaking has been serving those with such difficulties in Buckingham for 15 years, providing specialist support to young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, and all of the associated difficulties these conditions bring.
Janet is grateful for the time she can spend with the young people at all of the many ‘clearly cool’ club meetups. “Those over 16 can often feel isolated when school stops. If we can encourage them to join us for an afternoon of board games, we can help develop social skills, get them out the house and give them something hot to eat.”
The team are always looking for new members to join their quest. For more information or to book a place, contact Janet on 01280 824871.