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Pokémon Go is Positively Affecting Children with Autism

September 02, 2016
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In the past month, multiple news outlets have reported the benefits of Pokémon Go on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But what makes this popular augmented reality game so impactful with its players? Turns out, Pokémon Go provides a safe environment for children with ASD to go outside and engage in conversation. Launched in July 6, 2016, Pokémon Go uses your phone’s GPS to find and capture virtual “pocket monsters” in the real world. Since the game is location-based, users leave their homes to find creatures and Pokestops, landmarks that reward you with items needed for gameplay. Stephanie Barnhill noticed the positive effects on her 12-year-old son Ian, who has Asperger’s syndrome. “He’s willingly starting to go out and going to Pokestops, get Pokeballs and catch creatures, whereas he didn’t have the interest to go outside before,” she said. Barnhill previously struggled to convince her son to leave the house. Pokémon Go is also encouraging children with ASD to start conversations with fellow fans, or “trainers,” in public. It helps that most Pokémon topics are straightforward such as, “What level are you?” and “What Pokémon have you caught?” Dr. James McPartland, the director of Yale’s Developmental Disabilities Clinic, agrees. “Many pleasant social interactions are built around areas of shared interest. Pokémon Go is a topic of great interest to many people, on and off the spectrum,” he said, “In this way, it’s a great conversation starter and provides children on the spectrum a topic that they are comfortable with and may be knowledgeable about.” While the game is internationally famous, why are children with ASD in particular so interested in Pokémon Go? Experts point to the application’s structure and consistency in gameplay. “Pokémon Go involves a finite set of interesting characters that is consistent, stable. Kids with autism often like things that are like this that are list-based or concrete or fact-based,” McPartland said. Schools for ASD children are catching onto the Pokémon trend; many classrooms are starting to use the application as a learning tool. In New South Wales, the Aspect Hunter School for Children with Autism encourages students to use the game in and out of the classroom, and actively ties Pokémon into lessons. Craig Smith, the Deputy Principal at school, saw the appeal of using a game where students with or without ASD can go outside and engage with one another. “We wholly embrace whatever it is that kids are interested in and use that as a window into their world and bridge into further educational opportunities for them,” Smith said. No analytical research has been conducted on Pokémon Go’s impact on ASD yet. For now, experts are wondering what the long-term effects of Pokémon Go will be. Dr. Anne Kirby at the University of Utah is hoping the social skills gained from the application will grow into more opportunities. “If talking with others and wanting to go outside is all connected to the game right now, will it translate and generalize without the presence of the game?” she asked, “Will a desire to catch Pokémon in the park translate to wanting to go to the park and run around?” While the future of Pokémon Go is unknown, the benefits children with ASD are currently experiencing may be a positive indication.
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