27 August 2016

DIGITAL - Pokémon GO Helps Kids with Autism

Pokémon GO may be a lot more than just a fun distraction for kids on the autism spectrum.

It has the potential to offer kids social engagement, outdoor activity, and a game that plays to their strengths while also providing developmental opportunities.

Pokémon GO, which gets players out of the house in their efforts to hatch eggs, visit Poké stops and gyms, and “catch ‘em all,” also has the potential to get autistic kids socializing and engaging in ways that they might otherwise struggle with or avoid.

Kids on the autism spectrum enjoy and benefit from screen-based media, including video games.

Although there has been controversy over how video games might contribute to anti-social behaviour in kids, parents of kids on the autism spectrum tend to support, rather than discourage, their kids’ interest in video games. Multiple studies have found that video games, particularly storytelling games, can contribute to positive social behaviour in kids on the autism spectrum.

Daniel Bormann of the University of Freiburg, the lead researcher in a 2015 study, said in a press release that video games hook into general principles of human motivation, and that “successful game franchises offer meaningful choices to shape the game's narrative and environment, provide carefully balanced challenges, or encourage players to experience social connectedness and meaningful social interactions.”

Pokémon GO takes these positive effects and amplifies them by bringing kids out of the house and giving them a ready-made social setting when they come across other players.

Intense focus and enthusiastic excitement are common features of kids on the autism spectrum, and can draw negative attention from their neurotypical counterparts. This can make socializing difficult, and is one of the barriers to neurodivergent kids successfully engaging with their peers.  

One parent, Lenore Koppelman, told CNN, “The kids are so fixated on catching Pokemon that they are concentrating on finding them more than they are concentrating on his behaviors like they usually do.”

Not only does Pokémon GO provide a shared focus for neurotypical kids and kids on the autism spectrum, it also allows autistic kids to shine by highlighting their strengths.

Kids on the autism spectrum tend to be great at memorizing facts and learning the details of an interest, and Pokémon GO rewards their focus. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of the Pokémon franchise, is rumoured to have Asperger syndrome. The game was developed out of Tajiri’s love of bug collecting.

Kids with autism are not the only neurodivergent people seeing benefits from Pokémon GO.

Players with depression and anxiety have also reported that the game is helping them, even beyond the positive effects already associated with some video games.

So Pokémon GO and other video games can be included with options like animal assisted and more traditional therapy that have a positive impact on personal well-being.

Parents can learn more by downloading the Parents’ Guide to Pokémon GO.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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