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Video Game Provides Emotional Haven for Wilkes-Barre Boy with Autism
March 31, 2022

Diagnosed with autism as a toddler, Jack Sanders finds comfort playing the online video game Joe Danger, alone or with his father, St. Luke’s plastic surgeon Chris Sanders, MD.

When young Jack Sanders feels the threat of sensory over-stimulation, he reaches for his father’s cell phone or iPad.

The 10-year-old Wilkes Barre boy, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, seeks refuge in the Joe Danger online game for its calming effects. His parents, St. Luke’s plastic surgeon Chris Sanders, MD, and Jeanette Linskey-Sanders, DDS, also allow him time with the game as a reward for his efforts to stay focused during stressful times in public.

"I love Joe Danger,” says Jack. “I get to race, pick different costumes and vehicles. It's so much fun. It’s great!"

For years, Joe Danger has been part of Jack’s life, a digital haven where the outside world’s chaos and crowd noise often threaten to breach his usually happy, though ultrasensitive inner environment. Joe Danger’s creators describe Joe, a daredevil on a motorcycle, as “a stuntman on a fun arcade who goes from zero to hero.”  

“The game is his coping mechanism, which helps Jack block out uncomfortable stimulation,” says his Dad. 

Jack has classic autism spectrum behaviors: social awkwardness, overstimulation from external sources, a limited vocabulary. When he’s unable to cope with excessive stimulation, Jack can lose focus on tasks, over-reacts in social situations and experience emotional upheaval.  But Joe Danger helps him deal with these intruders, says Dr. Sanders.

“He grins from ear to ear when he’s using the game to help Joe across the screen as he races on his motorcycle or in a car,” he adds.  “It stimulates his brain helps him focus his attention while blocking out the intrusive noise and movement.”

During his surgery residency at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa., where he practices today, Dr. Sanders played the Joe Danger game “to blow off steam.”

He introduced the game to Jack when the boy was barely a toddler, and Jack took to it like a best, inseparable friend, playing it during most of his spare time.  Persons with autism can become obsessed with certain objects, movements or practices that bring them comfort.

Game Gone for Two Years

But suddenly one day in 2020, the game vanished from the phone’s screen, recalls Dr. Sanders. Jack was devastated with the loss.

His father learned that, when Apple updated its iPhone’s operating system, Joe Danger’s inventors didn’t retool it for compatibility with the mobile device. So Jack could only play it at home on a computer, not somewhere he needed it for protection as much as in public.

For two years—during the pandemic when life was complicated enough—Joe was unable to play the game on Dr. Sanders’ mobile devices, he says. The youngster missed the game’s distracting and entertaining properties, in shopping malls, restaurants and other public places, like a baseball bat might miss a well-pitched ball. (Jack loves baseball, too.)

Dr. Sanders tried replacing Joe with others that pulsed with visual and aural excitement, but his son wasn’t mollified.

“’It’s not Joe Danger, he would tell me,’” his father says.

This led him to write an email in desperation to Hello Games, telling them the story of his son’s obsession with Joe Danger and pleading with them to retool the game for mobile devices.

“Jack is 8 years old, about the sweetest kid on the planet, and has been diagnosed with autism,” Dr. Sanders wrote. “Jack LOVES Joe. He loves everything about him.”

“As a parent, it’s hard to put into words the feeling I get seeing the pure joy on Jack’s face Joe Danger brings, knowing the other struggles he experiences every day. But I can assure you, the feeling is a good one.”

Company founder Sean Murray later wrote on their website, the letter “broke our hearts and made us want to set things right.”

“As game devs [developers] it’s so easy to underestimate the impact even your smallest games can have,” he said in a Twitter thread where he shared the father’s letter online.

Father and son waited and waited for a response for two years, but none came. Jack often asked his father, “Daddy, have you heard from the Joe Danger people yet?” Dr. Sanders recalls. It hurt him to tell him no. 

Jack’s Dream Game Returns

Then, “like magic it appeared on my phone one day in late January,” Dr. Sanders says. “Hey Jack, I said, Joe’s back!” which was the best, late Christmas present the boy and his family could imagine.

“I was high as a kite that day,” his father adds.

After two years, Hello Games founder Murray also responded personally to Dr. Sanders’ email.

“I really love the fact that he saved the email all that time, and I think it gives it even a more personal connection to Jack,” says Dr. Sanders. 

Murray said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper in England that the team had undertaken a “hobby project” to bring the game back to life online, “slowly rebuilding it piece by piece through eight years of technology changes.”

Though Jack is a boy of few words, he’ll eagerly demonstrate how he controls his action hero on the iPad or iPhone, a broad smile on his face.

Now that his longtime friend is back, Jack and his parents are grateful and relieved that Joe Danger’s owners made a sacrifice to revive Jack’s hero on the screen.

“He’s been completely overjoyed,” says Jack’s father. “It means the world to us that they did this for a boy who needs Joe Danger in his life.”