Social crazes and trends often leave us feeling confused and even fearful of potential dangers, but Pokémon Go is helping some autistic individuals explore and socialize in a good way.
It is exciting to see a game making such a positive impact, especially considering that autism therapy is not always fun for your child.
The purpose of this article is to explore how this new app can reduce obstacles to social interaction and help overcome verbal apraxia (delayed speech).
Difficulty with social interactions
The new app that is catching everyone’s attention and passion, Pokémon Go, has components which may be of value for your child on the autism spectrum.
In previous articles, we have discussed physiological and biological issues affecting children and adults with autism. Some issues that directly impair their capacity to engage in typical social interaction are listed below:
- reduced visual field, leading to the impossibility of seeing everything that is happening in a group
- inability to process the social meaning of being touched by a friend: caused by a defective routing of soft touch through the white matter
- “too keen” visual processing of movement around him or her leading to anxiety and overload of non-priority visible items
- speech problems
- the way their brain is wired impedes their understanding of facial expressions
- plus a deficit in auditory processing: can mean that your autistic child cannot make friends easily or at all
Friends are essential to development
Establishing friendships is an important developmental goal of early childhood as friendships create a sense of belonging, build a sense of security, and lessen stress. 3, 9, 5
Peer relationships are so essential to child development that the leading international organization in early childhood education and early childhood special education — the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) — has recommended practices that highlight social interaction as a critical component of early childhood development. Such practices include the need to create child-focused environments that foster positive relationships among peers. 2, 8
Could an app create a child-focused environment through a shared passion and its requirement to gather in the same areas as other children? Our answer is yes. To some extent, Pokémon Go forces players to interact with other people in order to make progress.
Your role as a parent
Research on parents’ feelings regarding the friendships of their children with disabilities indicates that parents consider friendship development to be imperative.6 The purpose of this article is to give you one more tool for success by looking at the potential of a popular game. 9, 6
Besides parents’ efforts to organize play dates or fun events, children with autism can be rejected by their peers because of their specific behaviors, their tone of voice, or other unusual traits. Playing a game alongside peers will provide developmental benefits. As users search for new Pokémon, they share their interest by asking, “Which Pokémon have you found around here? Where should I look? What level are you as a trainer?” Within Pokémon Go, everyone is obsessed with the same thing, thus creating a safe environment where they can fearlessly chatter on about the same thing. In the absence of objective research on the matter, there are reasonable benefits seen in average children and children with developmental problems tied together in a common cause, even if it is on their individual devices.5
On the other hand, researchers have concluded that the role of the parent is essential in coaching, encouraging, and organizing social situations which will gradually lead to peer interaction. The obvious passion which children of all ages show when running around to find cartoon characters suggests that you can lead your child to interact with other people and their environment through Pokémon Go.4, 10
A study by Ladd and Golter showed that parents who initiated higher levels of peer contact had children with more consistent playmates. 7
Pokémon Go, whether or not it is on your list of favorite apps, is, at the moment, motivating children (and adults) to walk around malls, airports, parks, and other public places. Take advantage of the opportunity your child has of sharing the general interest; such an opportunity appears to have a positive purpose.
Friendship happens outside of the house
A recent study on the development of friendship in young children, with or without deficits show that friendship starts outside of the home, in places where parents go for their needs or leisure such as the mall, fast food restaurants with a play area or the park.
Researchers discussing children on the spectrum and parent involvement in their social interaction found that the most successful parents have a close direct supervision of their children’s social interaction. Opening the app, giving a device to your child, walking with him to the mall or the park and bringing him close to a group of peers playing the game fits the researchers’ recommendations.1
According to stories from Today, Parent Herald, and other outlets, Pokémon Go is successfully encouraging children on the spectrum to go out of the house and be in social settings. Parents interviewed on the topic by the media report that they have almost no issue getting their children out of the house if it is to play the game.
How to help your child with autism share his “monster” captures with others
- Model the proper communication
- Organize group “searches” with one peer and your child
- Create additional Pokémon images to offer to peers
- Become a resource for the activity and be sure to supervise
- Consider Sensory Enrichment Therapy to enhance social awareness and speech development
Sensory Enrichment Therapy and Pokémon Go
Playing Pokémon Go can give children more opportunities to interact with their peers and practice verbal skills. At Mendability we use Sensory Enrichment Therapy to complement speech therapy and help with speech development. Sensory Enrichment Therapy is a home-based autism treatment that helps the brain compensate for a wide variety of neurological challenges, including speech delay and poor social skills.
Sensory Enrichment Therapy exercises that target speech and language disorders are short and fun; you can integrate Pokémon Go into some of them if needed. At Mendability, we advocate working on fine motor skills, visual processing, eye scanning, mental image, and other combined sensory inputs to impact speech development.
Example of a Sensory Enrichment activity to complement Pokemon Go: Feel and Draw
Here is an activity that you would likely do with your child if you enrolled in Mendability. In this exercise, place a common object inside a sock then ask your child to place one hand inside the sock and draw the object he feels inside with the other hand. With this exercise, we are not practicing drawing, but encouraging the brain to build connections between areas which need good connections in order to produce speech. You would repeat the exercise once or twice a day, for a couple of weeks. You could place a familiar Pokémon in the sock and then take your child for a walk to find the same character at the mall.
- Bhavnagri, N. P., & Parke, R. D. (1991). Parents as Direct Facilitators of Children’s Peer Relationships: Effects of Age of Child and Sex of Parent. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 8(3), 423–440.
- Bredekamp, S., & National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. National Association for the Education of Young Children(NAEYC).
- Buysse, V., Goldman, B. D., & Skinner, M. L. (2002). Setting Effects on Friendship Formation among Young Children with and without Disabilities. Exceptional Children, 68(4), 503–517.
- Clark, K. E., & Ladd, G. W. (2000). Connectedness and autonomy support in parent-child relationships: Links to children’s socioemotional orientation and peer relationships. Developmental Psychology, 36(4), 485–498.
- Geisthardt, C. L. G., Brotherson, M. J., & Cook, C. C. (2002). Friendships of children with disabilities in the home environment. Education & Training in Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities, 37(3), 235–252.
- Guralnick, M. J. (1999). Family and child influences on the peer-related social competence of young children with developmental delays. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 5(1), 21–29.
- Ladd, G. W., & Golter, B. S. (1988). Parents’ management of preschooler’s peer relations: Is it related to children’s social competence? Developmental Psychology, 24(1), 109–117.
- McLean, M. E., Snyder, P., Smith, B. J., & Sandall, S. R. (2002). The DEC Recommended Practices in Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education: Social Validation. Journal of Early Intervention, 25(2), 120–128.
- Overton, S., & Rausch, J. L. (2002). Peer Relationships as Support for Children with Disabilities: An Analysis of Mothers’ Goals and Indicators for Friendship. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17(1), 11–29.
- Schneider, B. H., Atkinson, L., & Tardif, C. (2001). Child-parent attachment and children’s peer relations: a quantitative review. Developmental Psychology, 37(1), 86–100.