How Pokémon Go Might Actually Be Helping Kids With Autism

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

If you’ve been following coverage of Pokémon Go, the mobile game that has taken over the internet and a disturbingly large chunk of human life in general, you may have seen claims that the game is having a beneficial impact on kids with autism spectrum disorders, or ASD.

Sometimes, kids with ASD can be a bit rigid in their behaviors and averse to new experiences, partly because they are, on average, a bit more susceptible to sensory overload than folks who aren’t on the spectrum. As a result, they can sometimes be a bit less adventurous and open to starting conversations than other kids. But according to stories from Today, Parent Herald, and other outlets, Pokémon Go seems to be successfully encouraging some kids with ASD to explore the world a bit — and, just as importantly, to engage in conversation with other Pokémon fans in the process. As one grateful parent explained to Houston’s ABC 13, getting her son with autism “to be social, getting him to go outside, is always a challenging thing. He usually doesn’t want to be torn away from the video games he’s playing, so Pokémon Go has been fantastic for getting him outside.”

What’s going on here? Could this game really be helping kids with autism as much as the news coverage suggests? To learn more, I reached out to two autism specialists, Anne Kirby at the University of Utah and James McPartland at Yale. Both agreed that the game really could be helping kids with autism, and offered some specific reasons why. (Kirby said that her graduate research assistant, Carly Taylor, helped with the response she sent me. Taylor “knows a lot about Pokémon Go,” Kirby explained, “and has had numerous opportunities through our research going on at the University of Utah this summer to talk to adolescents with autism spectrum disorder about the game and to observe them talking about it with others.”)

Before proceeding, it’s really important to put any claims about Pokémon Go in the proper perspective: The game just came out, no one has studied its effects rigorously, and new or unfamiliar technology tends to bring with it overheated claims. Plus, it isn’t realistic or fair to expect parents of autistic kids to coolly, rationally evaluate the effects of Pokémon Go on their kids’ behavior — they’re just excited to see the game making a positive impact, and they aren’t scientists. So as Kirby explained, “we’re not sure if and how there will be long-lasting changes from the conversations being had about Pokémon Go and the interest in going outside that may result from it.” A grain or two of salt is needed.

But there are some clear theoretical reasons why the game could be helping kids on the spectrum. Many children with autism, after all, develop fairly niche-y fixations on certain subjects. Oftentimes, those subjects veer a bit toward the nerdy, toward the quantitative and technical. So one of the problems autistic kids sometimes have with making friends is it’s hard to find kids who aren’t on the spectrum who share those interests. After a few minutes of a second-grader with ASD excitedly chattering about how microprocessors work, other kids might start to lose interest and tune him out.

As Kirby explained, kids on the spectrum tend to be into video games in general. “It may be that it just happens to be their interest, or it may be partially that this interest allows them to be somewhat removed from the social world.” At the risk of stereotyping a little, a game like Pokémon Go, with its emphasis on a the repetitive task of collecting Pokémon, examining their statistics, and so forth, is probably even more likely than other video games to attract the interest of kids on the spectrum. And in this case, a bunch of kids not on the spectrum are also getting sucked into the vortex. So when kids with autism go out in search of Pokémon and run into other kids doing the same, they have an easy subject for conversation. “Many pleasant social interactions are built around areas of shared interest,” said McPartland. “Pokémon Go is a topic of great interest to many people, on and off the spectrum. 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.”

And while other, more free-form conversations have subtle, tricky rules that kids on the spectrum might have more trouble grasping than kids off of it, conversations about Pokémon which occur while searching for the critters are likely to be fairly straightforward: Which Pokémon have you found around here? What level is your trainer? Have you found any other good spots to look for them? There isn’t a risk of chattering on and on, because everyone is, at the moment, obsessed with the same thing — everyone wants to chatter endlessly about it. “This game is broadly popular so it may be providing new opportunities to have something in common with people they otherwise wouldn’t,” said Kirby. And while games like Minecraft allow players to learn all the strategies they need from YouTube and other sources they can access by sitting at their computers, “because there is somewhat of a local, unique, and changing experience of Pokémon Go people are rewarded for talking to others in their community to learn what’s out there and how they can collect more.” To a certain extent, you have to interact with people in the real world to make progress.

Kirby also raised the issue of eye contact, which makes a lot of kids on the autism spectrum uncomfortable, and can be one reason for avoiding interaction with others.“When I interview children with ASD in my research, I try to reduce the emphasis on eye contact by not sitting directly across from them and often have something else they can look at (but not too distracting, even something simple like providing them with a bottle of water prior to the interview),” she said. “In those cases, they often look at the bottle of water and fidget with it during the conversation which seems to make them more comfortable. Pokémon Go encourages people to go out into the world and explore new places, but makes it necessary to do so while looking at your device screen. Thus, it may be providing a built-in and socially acceptable way for youth with ASD to engage socially while reducing the emphasis on eye contact.”

Overall, then, this isn’t some wacky, out-there claim, since there are so many clear reasons why Pokémon Go might be having the impact the coverage says it is. As Kirby noted, the big question will be the long-term effects. “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 conversations with others in the park turn into friendships? Will a desire to catch Pokémon in the park translate to wanting to go to the park and run around? Or will the next new traditional video game return them to their former habits?”

All worthy questions, but in the meantime, it’s heartwarming to think about kids who might otherwise have a lot of trouble making friends bonding with others in a park over their mutual hunt for Charizard.

How Pokémon Go Might Actually Be Helping Kids With Autism