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Teen with Aspergers benefits from card game

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PORT RICHEY — Tucked away inside Gulf View Square is a store where powerful wizards battle for glory, knowledge and conquest on Friday nights.

Battle cries, sighs of frustration and facepalming gestures are in abundance as the planeswalkers battle it out. Instead of magic wands, however, the wizards are ordinary people dueling with cards.

Yancy Street Comics is a safe haven for nerds from all walks of gaming life. Friday nights beckon players for Magic: The Gathering game tournaments while other nights of the week call players out for Heroclix, Dungeons & Dragons and open gaming nights.

Danielle Abernethy drives an hour every Friday night to Port Richey from Spring Hill to bring her son to playMTG, but for him, it’s so much more than a teenager’s casual hobby. The experience has transformed the 15-year-old seventh grade student.

Joey Abernethy has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of neurodevelopmental disorder on the Autism spectrum that involve delays in the development of basic skills such as the ability to socialize with others, to communicate and to use imagination. Joey can come across as awkward, often times not recognizing social cues and saying things that may seem rash to others.

Joey fell behind in school a few years back because of a seizure disorder, making him physically older than most of his classmates, although on an emotional level he still relates better to 12- and 13-year-olds. He told his doctor that seizures made him feel like the Incredible Hulk, a Marvel Comics character who, thanks to a gamma ray experiment gone wrong, transforms into a giant green-skinned hulk whenever his pulse rate gets too high.

Joey likened his inability to control the seizures to “Hulking out.”

Last summer, Joey, an avid comic book reader, discovered the game being played at the comic store and it has positively affected every aspect of his life. Nearly every Friday, Joey joins 60-70 gamers to play MTG, the first trading card game ever produced with millions of players all over the world.

Each game represents a battle between wizards, known as “Planeswalkers”, who use spells, artifacts, and creatures depicted on cards to defeat their opponents. Players must be able to read and understand cards, memorize their abilities, count quickly, build effective decks and create strategies to win.

His mom glows when she talks about the transformation that she and others have seen in Joey since he started playing MTG.

“His teachers have said his critical thinking skills have improved and he’s learned to take strategy from Magic and apply it to schoolwork,” Abernethy said. “His math teacher said his counting skills have improved. His reading and memory skills have also improved because of all the cards he has to read and understand to be able to play.”

“You have to have a good memory in Magic,” Joey interjected.

When Joey can’t make it out to “Friday Night Magic” events, he plays the game with virtual cards on an iPad. He’s constantly thinking of new strategies and learning about new cards to add to his deck.

“He’s always looking for new cards to add to his deck,” Abernethy said.

“That are useful and needed,” Joey added. “I don’t collect.”

Several players and employees at Yancy Street have helped Joey along in his quest to become an admired MTG player, especially Logan Growney, the son of Yancy Street’s gaming manager, Dave Growney. When Joey first entertained the idea of learning to play either Heroclix or Magic, Logan steered him in the direction of Magic, which is less of a financial burden on a family.

Although Logan was unaware at first that Joey has Asperger’s, he picked up on his obsessive-compulsive habits and socially awkwardness and worked with him patiently and diligently, which Abernethy appreciates.

“He doesn’t have to worry about looking stupid or failing,” Abernethy said. “He knows that in every game there has to be a loser but he learns each time. Everyone is so patient and friendly with him.”

Now instead of keeping to himself and talking to just Logan and a couple other players, he often approaches player he doesn’t know as well to strike up a conversation,” Logan said.

“He’s been so much more outgoing,” Logan said.

Dave said this isn’t the first time a parent has brought a child with one of the Autism spectrum disorders to help them acclimate to social interaction. Other parents also bring their children in to get them outside of their social norms and even reward them for good behavior and grades at school.

“Now he’s exposed to a much larger group of people with like-minded interests,” Dave said.

It’s not just Joey and teenagers like him that enjoy playing the fantasy-themed game. The hobby game industry has continued to expand over the past few years, even as video game sales have declined, according to a 2012 report by “RPG Research”, an organization that does research studies on the therapeutic and educational aspects of gaming.

“Longtime industry insiders are comparing the current market to the Pokemon boom era around 2000, but with the difference that sales are good across the board rather than dependent on a single title,” the report said.

In 2010, digital game market inttelligence company SuperData Research released a study on the trading card game industry, which included gamer profiles online and based off their sample, determined that the average age of a trading card gamer is 22 and 84.1 percent are male while 15.9 percent are female.

Magic can be played at Yancy Street for free at 7 p.m. on Mondays and for a $5-$15 buy-in at 7 p.m. on Fridays, depending on whether participants want to play draft, constructed standard or two-headed giant constructed standard. The store is inside the mall, at 9409 U.S. 19.

You can reach Daylina at dmiller@suncoastnews.com or (727) 815-1067(727) 815-1067. Follow her on Twitter at @DaylinaMiller.

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