The Pokemon GO explosion has hit the autism community as many teens and young adults now play the game. Many local areas of interest serve as gyms for the three main teams: Mystic, Instinct, and Valor. Players are participating in the competitiveness of the game overtaking opponent gyms and sporting their team as the best.
Playing Pokemon was a defining part of childhood for the “90s kid” who stayed up late playing the new Gameboy Color under the covers. For many, it was the sense of being connected to another world and the idea of “adventure” that was the core of the game’s appeal. As a Real World Aventure (RWA) game, Pokemon GO connects to these values and has formed a bridge between the physical world, the world of Pokemon, and the sense of “adventure”.
What is most interesting about Pokemon GO in relation to the autism population is that it offers an opportunity for the usual at-home-gamers to move outside their comfort zone and physically engage with each other in the real world. It provides the opportunity for individuals to be simultaneously connected to the real world and the virtual world of Pokemon through Augmented Reality (AR).
In this way, Pokemon GO offers a unique meeting point between video gaming adventure, physical activity, and community involvement.
Potential Benefits Specific to Autism
This unique bridge or “middle ground” Pokemon GO offers between hardcore gaming and community involvement gives the game value as a potential tool for progression in social skills and community exploration among young adults on the autism spectrum.
The immediate benefit that players first notice Pokemon GO has to offer is the ease of transition into health and wellness. Players are given incentives to walk while simultaneously exploring their community. Eggs serve as a partial pedometer as they require the player to walk 2-10 kilometers.
From a social skills standpoint, Pokemon GO offers a unique opportunity for individuals to socialize with other “Pokemon Trainers” in the community regardless of age, job, orientation, etc. A colleague remarked about a businessman, skater, and her 10 year old son were socializing together all because of Pokemon GO. These instances demonstrate unmistakable value for community exploration and involvement.
Pokemon GO also has potential in assisting with environmental awareness, which marks the uniqueness of this game, especially among young adults on the autism spectrum. Understanding how to filter the social environment is a common struggle among the population. When addressing social goals, familiar topics discussed commonly include community involvement and ability to read nonverbal cues in the surrounding environment. The game may assist in the transition from at-home to outdoor gaming. Our students are incentivized to catch Pokemon, therefore they explore their local community and extend the awareness of their immediate surroundings. A student talked to me about a conversation she had with a classmate at school she had never met before — all because of Pokemon GO.
Potential concerns for utilizing Pokemon GO usually revolve around safety in a global perspective. This issue does not directly impact the practicality of utilizing Pokemon GO from a facilitator’s perspective (as session is normally carried out in pairs or groups lessening the chance of individual harm). In common cases, a student’s motivation and ability to mediate their impulse control could be a defining factor that can prove Pokemon GO a drawback for their growth.
The fact is, Pokemon GO has an impact on a large majority of young adults. When translated properly between entertainment and benefit, Pokemon GO has high potential as an ideal activity to implement for the personal development among individuals on the autism spectrum. It speaks to their special interests and can therefore translate their motivations toward self-improvements.
The creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Tajiri, is an individual who found his special interests in bug catching/collecting and often skipped class to spend days at the arcade. Some could say he may have found fulfillment through translating his special interests into his ultimate success. Tajiri also happens to be on the autism spectrum.
The balance between special interests and self improvement is what all facilitators strive for when working with students on the autism spectrum. As with all cases, it is crucial to take note and adapt facilitation styles to individualistic differences. To improve the validity and practicality of utilizing Pokemon GO as a benefit, make sure to take into account the following conditions:
Before you GO
- Do your research
With any curricular item, familiarize yourself with it before facilitation. Download the game yourself, catch some Pokemon and hatch 10 kilometer eggs. You will hold much more credibility and preparation when guiding your student/child. Research Pokemon GO on the internet; there is much more valuable information available online that you may not catch through playing the game alone.
- Be aware of sensory preferences and avoidances
Many individuals on the spectrum also have sensitivities to different senses present in varying environments. Sensory overload is a familiar term among the autism community and can mark a make-it-or-break-it point. For this reason, make sure to consider the weather, noise level, and terrain of where you will be walking/biking to.
- What is the purpose? (Pre-think)
Mentally prepare and review your comfort with utilizing the game towards a specific benefit or goal for your student/child. From a facilitator’s perspective, we observe our students and think of creative ways to implement our resources to the benefit of our students. With specific goals in mind, Pokemon GO can also be utilized for the benefit of the student while also including their special interest.
Directives for Facilitation
Keeping these conditions and benefits in mind, here are some suggestions that could be integrated with individuals on the spectrum:
Social Mentoring Sessions
As a teacher, I have utilized Pokemon GO during my social mentoring sessions to test and explore the practicality of using the game for these benefits. In the following section, we will analyze the experiences two young adult students on the autism spectrum encountered with Pokemon GO.
Background: Karen is a young adult with ADHD and is on the autism spectrum. She is very involved in the outside world through social media, but is inconsistent with her focus in staying present and being aware/prepared for her immediate environment. She has been working on improving her impulse control in social situations (blurting/interrupting conversation) and finding a balance between daily responsibilities and electronic use (cell phone, laptop). She has just recently been showing great improvements in these areas.
Session: I began this session with a pep talk overviewing Karen’s goals for impulse control and highlighting the focus of today’s session; environmental awareness. I told her that we would be playing Pokemon GO and emphasized the importance of following these steps when encountering a Pokemon:
- Look around and assess the environment (Is anyone walking by? Am I in the middle of the walkway?)
- Respond to your assessment (Move to the side of the walkway.)
I reminded Karen that the phone had a vibration notification so that she did not have to constantly look at the phone screen to find Pokemon. At first, Karen needed reminders on the steps we discussed, but by the end of session she required very little prompting. She rarely looked at the phone screen without a vibration notifier and was able to maintain conversation while walking around with the phone in her hand. We reflected on this and discussed the connections between the game and her goals toward environmental awareness.
Background: Kristen is also on the autism spectrum. She is proficient at navigating her environment and primarily struggles with adapting herself when social anxieties are present. Kristen has been working on identifying and responding appropriately to nonverbal cues present in differing social environments. She has made large improvements in adapting her basic social skills (voice volume, introductions, starting a conversation) in social settings.
Session: I began session by discussing the purpose of using Pokemon GO during our session today towards situational awareness and we reviewed the steps (stop, assess, respond) to follow through. During session, Kristen needed frequent prompting to follow the steps previously outlined and consistently relied on looking at her phone screen. I suggested that she turn on her vibration function. Kristen then explained that the vibration setting actually conflicts with her sensory issues. Overall, Kristen enjoyed exploring her local community park.
In both accounts these students enjoyed themselves, explored their community, and were motivated to understand what other benefits playing Pokemon GO would entail for them. As with Kristen’s session, her sensory avoidance of vibration was a defining factor in the practicality of using Pokemon GO during her session. In Karen’s case, she was able to mediate her impulse control consistently and thus follow through with pre-set expectations. In this way Pokemon GO can be utilized to encourage students to be mindful in the present moment. This is a concept that many facilitators, educators, and parents who communicate with individuals on the autism spectrum understand as a significant challenge among their students/children.
Ultimately, the level of practicality Pokemon GO may possess for those on the Autism/LD spectrum relies on their individualistic differences as well as within the comfort of the facilitator. Pokemon GO can open doors not only as a grounds between at-home and outdoor gaming but initiate the progression towards further research among young adults on the autism spectrum.
About the Author
Jolene Liang is the Social Skills Coordinator at CIP Long Beach. She graduated from California State University Long Beach in 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. She has experience assisting in children’s after school programs and has also aided the elderly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Jolene aims to grow in experience and provide acceptance for those who need it most.