Friendships help individuals grow both socially and emotionally, and finding the right kind of person to understand and accept who you are is not always easy. Socializing with new people face-to-face can be a bit daunting at first, which is why making friends by joining online communities has become quite popular.

Chris Lopes, 21 years old from Long Island, New York, and Caleb Stephens, 22 years old from Jonesboro, Arkansas, grew up over 1,000 miles apart and we’re both diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as children. They each found social interactions to be difficult, uncomfortable, and were unsure how to make or keep friendships. The exception to this, however, was their brothers whom they formed incredible bonds with. When both Lopes and Stephens lost their brothers, they lost the only real friendship they had.

There is a myth that individuals with autism do not want to have friends, however it is often the overwhelming anxiety that makes it easier to not try. When the boys turned to video games and meeting people through online gaming communities, this had a positive effect on social interactions and relationships. In some instances, communicating online can be easier to navigate because they do not require the same high level of attention to facial expressions and nonverbal body language that face-to-face interactions do.

A few years back, Lopes started going to the Island Gamers Club in Bohemia, New York on weekends. The group was started by a mother of a boy with autism and now hosts a crowd of 80 people who share a love for video games, where they can eat snacks and just hang out. Shortly after this big step, Lopes began branching out and meeting fellow gamers at gaming conventions.

Chris Lopes (center) at Island Gamers Club

In March of 2018, Lopes and Stephens met on the Discord chat service where their mutual passion for gaming and ability to communicate easily online helped form a real friendship. “When you’re in real life you have to go up to people and form conversations, but when you’re online you’re behind a screen and it takes that shyness away,” Lopes told WSJ.

Upon introductions, little did they know the similarities their backgrounds and stories shared. They began texting, then moved to voice chat, and soon after getting to know each other more, Lopes suggested they meet in person. Their mothers connected through Facebook, talked on the phone, and by November Lopes and his mom were flying to meet Stephens at his home in Arkansas. 

Both Lopes and Stephens expressed it was difficult adjusting to meeting each other in person at first. Stephens can only take in-person interactions for a couple of hours before he needs his alone time. After a few days, they went bowling, to the arcade, ate at Chili’s and, of course, played video games. Since meeting Lopes, Stephens has become more social and has met up with other friends he has found on Discord, including a young man from another part of Arkansas.

Caleb Stephens (left) and Chris Lopes (right)

Fast forward to today where Lopes and Stephens text or talk to each other every day. The friendship is so strong that Stephens is saving up to fly to Long Island to visit Stephens again by the end of this year. In the last few years before Stephen’s brother passed away, they played ‘Spelunky.’ Stephens said, “That’s a game me and Chris play now.”

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