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Pokémon GO: What parents of individuals with autism need to understand

This post is from school psychologist Dr. Peter Faustino and member of the Autism Speaks Family Services Committee.

Pokémon GO is all the current rage.  And even if you are not an aficionado or think that the game is too childish, or even surprised that it is making a vigorous come back, the concept of GPS-based augmentative reality games are something that could be a promising new intervention for young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

You see I have spent much of my career, as a school psychologist, attempting to teach social skills to individuals on the spectrum.  One of the bigger challenges, beyond manding, behavioral rehearsal, or social reciprocity, is to motivate them to get outdoors and interact.  Frequently, I would say “Get comfortable practicing these skills in here, so you can go and take risks outside!”

But what the fervor around Pokémon GO has helped me realize is that I have been approaching the problem from the perspective of a neurotypical individual.  It made far more sense (to me) that the problem of generalization (using their newly learned social skills or transferring our work to new and different environments) would be a problem of anxiety or lack of confidence with new scenarios.  Often I was remiss at how well my students could maintain unique conversations within my office but refused to leave the security of their homes to explore the world outside. 

What I was failing to appreciate was the reason to leave or said differently, the purpose to leave.  Pokémon GO is giving young adults with ASD their own unique reason to leave the house, albeit if it is to catch pocket monsters.  I am familiar with successful individuals who are motivated to leave the house to attend a car show (because they love automobiles), or those who have discovered a love of pictures (in photography) or the power of music (in attending a concert) but they will soon return to the confines of their home when those “reasons” to leave are complete or have ended.

GPS-based augmentative reality games can pique the interest of individuals with ASD to the point of giving them “excuses” or better said the inspiration to explore the world around them.  Now while some might say that their interactions are only around Pokémon characters and that they still have a restricted interest or singular topic of conversation – I would much prefer the scenario in which those circumscribed conversations take place outside the house at the park in their neighborhood, the library, the supermarket or other community based location (where they find tokens or poke balls).  In fact, what an opportunity for parents to encourage their children to play video games but have to be outside in order to do it! 

As a school psychologist, I would encourage parents to seize the opportunity for their children to capitalize on this gaming experience while at the park or when running errands.  My advice is not to judge this new gaming experience as all bad and in need of limits.  Rather let’s embrace a step toward video games and virtual reality that may one day be tailored to inspiring those we love with ASD to leave the house and receive points/rewards/tokens for gathering information from other people they encounter in the store, at work, or at a place of leisure.  To me that sounds an awful lot like what I have been trying to get them to do by learning social skills in my office each week…only I hadn’t yet discovered the key to unlocking their unique motivation or reason to take risks. What’s your young adult’s inspiration to explore?

If you are considering becoming a Pokémon GO Trainer, Autism Speaks wants to remind our community of a few safety tips to keep in mind. This game is all about having fun, getting outdoors, and interacting with your environment. It is also important for parents and caregivers to reinforce safety lessons with their children and young adults with autism before they set out to ‘catch them all’. 

Pokémon GO Safety Tips for Our Community

  • Appropriate parent/caregiver supervision is recommended.
  • Users should always check with parent or caregivers before going anywhere.
  • Stay aware of surroundings while playing.
  • Be aware unsupervised users may be drawn to catch Pokémon near bodies of water, private property, or restricted areas posing a danger.
  • The app may draw strangers together in real life at ‘Pokéstops’. Teach users to be cautious of being lured into a bad situation.
  • Do not drive or ride bikes, skateboards, or any other devices while playing.
  • Consider playing in pairs or as a group in well-lit areas.
  • Have fun AND stay safe!

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.