Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Positive Interaction Popular 'Pokemon' Game Has Added Benefits, and Risks, for Children with Autism

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Positive Interaction Popular 'Pokemon' Game Has Added Benefits, and Risks, for Children with Autism

Article excerpt

When Austin Rodriguez plays "Pokemon Go," he connects with other people.

For Austin, 16, of Brackenridge, this is a rare occurrence. It's not because he's anti-social. In fact, his mother, Heather Rodriguez, says he is very friendly. It's because he has autism spectrum disorder.

Austin, like other kids with autism spectrum disorder, doesn't usually initiate interaction with other people, prefers to stay indoors in the virtual world of his computers and doesn't have much interest in the social life of high school.

But, when he started playing "Pokemon Go" - a cell phone game where users catch virtual Pokemon characters - it was like "night and day," said Mrs. Rodriguez. Suddenly, he was connecting with strangers playing the game, wanting to go to the park and taking walks with friends he usually only talked to over the web.

Austin, who has high-functioning autism, said the actual game wasn't the best part - it was seeing everyone else play it.

"I was with my one friend, walking through the park, [when] we saw a big crowd of people, around 20 or so, and they were all just there playing," he said. "I felt really happy when I saw that. Like I've heard people have been able to see big crowds, but then I see it for myself, and it's almost breathtaking."

Other children around the country with autism spectrum disorder are experiencing similar successes, leading some parents and experts to say "Pokemon Go" could change their lives by helping them with social interaction, exercise and other independence skills. Others, though, worry that the game will put their children in danger and may not be as beneficial to their development as some claim.

Autism is a complex neurodevelopment disorder of varying degrees characterized by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction.

Ali Perryman, a psychiatric specialty counselor at the UPMC/WPIC Theiss Early Autism Program, said that children with autism are often more interested in electronic activities than pencil and paper and find virtual worlds predictable, structured and comfortable.

But while every child on the autism spectrum could play the game, some will benefit more than others depending on skills they already have, she said.

"As far as benefiting from social interaction, they would need to have more awareness and be at a level to understand that they need to interact with someone else," she said. "We usually get to that part by establishing positive interaction with other people."

There are a number of ways that children with autism learn about social interaction, but Gary Swanson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with the Allegheny Health Network, said anything visual will be easier for them to grasp. He often uses comic strips to show the "give and take" of a conversation.

Dr. Swanson said children with autism may struggle to recognize social cues, such as noticing when someone is bored with the conversation. Some children on the spectrum may fixate on one thing, whether it be "Pokemon Go" or ceiling fans, and often don't know when to stop talking about their object of fixation. …

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