A local video game store sets itself apart from the rest by giving those with special needs, and their families, a night to call their own.
When Shoreham resident Tristan Whitworth opened Game On, a retro video game and toy store in Miller Place, in 2015, he did so with a few personal missions in mind. Not only did he want to send his adult customers back to their childhood when they entered the door, he also wanted to provide a community-oriented haven for kids with common interests. He envisioned a place kids could hang out, be themselves and play their favorite games together, similar to the comic book stores and arcades he and his friends would rush to after school when growing up.
So when Whitworth, 31, noticed that a majority of his loyal customers were kids, teens and young adults on the autism spectrum — all separately coming into the store with their families — he jumped at the opportunity to set up an event where they could all meet one another, make new friends and form a bond.
“At first, I started a little trial thing here at the store on Fridays where we had pizza and I told certain families to just come in, play games and hang out with us [the staff],” he said. “The kids just started communicating with each other, and the parents started to communicate with each other. The kids exchanged phone numbers and even started having appointments to hang out. It blew my mind.”
In October 2016, the trial gatherings officially became “The Autism Social Club & Game Night,” a once-a-month and completely free Game On event held at North Shore United Methodist Church in Wading River, where young people on the autism spectrum, as well as those with Down syndrome and other disabilities, can enjoy some independence and play a variety of games with their siblings, parents and friends old and new.
On the last Friday of every month, Whitworth and members of the store’s staff venture to the church and set up tables, TV’s, and a wide range of game consoles from Super Nintendo to Sega Genesis to Playstation and Atari in a giant room for the game night, hosted between 7 and 9 p.m.
Those who are sound-sensitive, or don’t like video games, can pick from a large selection of board games like Trouble and Chutes and Ladders, and healthy foods, like fruit and hummus, are served to help boost better dietary habits. While about 10 kids showed up on the first night, Whitworth said there are up to 25 kids and parents that now attend and the event is only growing.
“I love it, I’m obsessed,” Whitworth said of the event, for which he’s made T-shirts and a logo consisting of puzzle pieces inside a brain. “The biggest thing for me is to make sure [the kids] know they’re not alone. Some don’t have others they can relate to or have friends with common interests. At the last game night, four kids who had only met through this event organized their own little thing where they each brought in one video game and they sat in a circle and played with each other. The parents didn’t organize it, I had nothing to do with it, they just communicated with each other and that was awesome.”
Dani Sanford, a Game On employee and game night volunteer, said the event has been great for her younger sister, who has Down syndrome.
“She socializes more, everyone there is so sweet to her, so welcoming and [friendly] and so my mom loves bringing her there,” Sanford said. “She usually just plays solitaire and games she can play by herself, but now, she’s actually looking forward to playing with other people.”
Sound Beach resident Samantha Netburn and her four children have been going to Game On ever since it opened, developing a close friendship with Whitworth and being a huge reason the event was thought up in the first place.
With two of her children — Jeremy, 15, and Summer, 14 — on the spectrum, Netburn said the family looks forward to the game night every month.
“It’s really amazing, Tristan’s such a good guy and he’s so good to the kids…it’s nice to get together and sit down with other kids and just have a good night for a few hours,” Netburn said. “It’s cute how the kids all have these friendships now and look forward to seeing each other. There are kids out there that don’t play with a lot of kids and don’t know how to…so they have this.”
Summer, who spends most of her time at the game night socializing and getting to know everyone, has broken out of her shy shell since attending the event.
“At Game On, I like to talk to new people and ask them questions like, ‘what school are you in?’ or ‘what kinds of stuff do you like to do?’ and it’s nice to talk to them about themselves,” Summer said.
Jeremy said he’s always gravitated towards the older games because they “have a lot more character” and rely heavily on “strategy and thinking,” and thinks playing video games with others is an even more connective experience than playing sports.
Pastor Hal Low of North Shore United Methodist Church said as a father of two sons on the spectrum, he was quick to respond to Whitworth’s call asking to use the building to host the event.
“I was on board from the moment he came to me with the idea,” Low said. “I know my sons look forward to it every month and it’s an opportunity for them to socialize and have fun in an environment with their peers and other people who are understanding of autism.”
Whitworth said while he hopes to start up a second game night in the future, he’s happy to have provided kids who love to get their “game on” with a place to go.
Game On is located at 465 Route 25A. For more information about Game On or the game night, call 631-821-GAME (4263) or check them out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/gameonmpgamenight/.