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Story highlights

"Pokemon Go" encourages some kids with autism and Asperger's to interact with others

No research has been done on the effects, but parents see a difference

(CNN) —  

The moment 12-year-old Ian Thayer asked his mom to go outside for Pokemon hunting, Stephanie Barnhill was struck with wonder and excitement.

No, she wasn’t obsessed with trying to catch all 145 Pokemon.

Ian has Asperger’s syndrome, and for him, that means he struggles with social interactions and motivation to go outside. Barnhill often had difficulty asking and persuading Ian to leave his comfortable loft area to explore outside. He’d even rejected “Pokemon Go” at first.

But Barnhill says that since her son started flicking away and catching Pokemon, Ian has taken the initiative to go outside more and interact with other children, as well as his community.

Ian Thayer, 12, has been going outside more to catch Pokemon.
Ian Thayer, 12, has been going outside more to catch Pokemon.
PHOTO: Courtesy Stephanie Barnhill

“He’s willingly starting to go out and going to Pokestops, get Pokeballs and catch creatures, whereas he didn’t have the interest to go outside before,” Barnhill said. “He’s not a go-outside-and-play kind of kid. But this game has enabled him to want to reach out to people and strike up conversations about creatures that they’ve caught.”

The game’s augmented-reality feature and method of rewarding players who go to Pokestops located at popular landmarks in their communities have led people to be more interactive than normal while playing video games.

Lenore Koppelman is the mother of 6-year-old Ralphie, who has autism and hyperlexia, which is associated with verbal language difficulties. She has also found “Pokemon Go” useful in helping her son socialize with other kids.

“They want to play ‘Pokemon Go,’ and so does he, so it gives them something in common to do. The kids are so fixated on catching Pokemon that they are concentrating on finding them more than they are concentrating on his behaviors like they usually do,” Koppelman said. “As a result, he is finally finding himself in the middle of groups of kids he doesn’t even know, being welcome to play with them.”

Ralphie Koppelman, 6, has been socializing with other kids over Pokemon.
Ralphie Koppelman, 6, has been socializing with other kids over Pokemon.
PHOTO: Courtesy Lenore Koppelman

Though no quantifiable research has been done on the effects of “Pokemon Go,” Dr. James McPartland, director of Yale’s Developmental Disabilities Clinic in the Child Study Center, says the game is appealing among kids with autism or Asperger’s because of its consistency and structure.

“(’Pokemon Go’) involves a finite set of interesting characters that is consistent, stable. Kids with autism often like things that are like this that are list-based or concrete or fact-based,” said McPartland, who doesn’t treat Ian or Ralphie. “They’re very good at learning about things and memorizing things, so not only is this a shared area of interest, it’s an area in which the kinds of strengths with autism can shine.”

According to Dr. Peter Faustino, a school psychologist in New York who doesn’t work with Ian or Ralphie, it’s the common interest that’s helped spark changes in children with autism or Asperger’s.

Faustino describes how he guides children with Asperger’s or autism to adapt a “social hook,” which he defines as “something that will sort of share an experience or a connection.” Normally, he advises them to take an interest in sports or pop music. However, Pokemon’s popularity proves to be an exception.

” ‘Pokemon Go’ seems to be making Pokemon mainstream and cool. So it’s almost this reverse social hook that’s really kind of exciting for some kids,” Faustino said. “The other thing that seems to be going on is this opportunity to get outside, to be more interactive outside of the house. This seems to be offering that hook.”

While “Pokemon Go” has had some positive effects on Ian and Ralphie, Dr. Fred Volkmar, a professor in Yale’s Child Study Center, who does not treat either boy, also warns of possible pitfalls for kids on the autism spectrum.

“The problem with Pokemon is that kids can do it to a point where it interferes with learning about the world,” Volkmar said. “If you can make it somewhat functional, it’s fine. It’s detrimental if it’s the only thing they’re interested in. If it helps the kid become more isolated, it’s not good.”

But McPartland, who has worked with Volkmar, advises that with careful monitoring, these detrimental effects could be avoided.

“I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically detrimental about ‘Pokemon Go,’ ” McPartland said. “Any activity any child does should be monitored by a parent. And parents should say how much is appropriate and when is appropriate and with whom it’s appropriate. Like anything else, if those things aren’t monitored, issues could arise.”

Lenore Koppelman is proud of the changes in her son, Ralphie.
Lenore Koppelman is proud of the changes in her son, Ralphie.
PHOTO: Courtesy Lenore Koppelman

Ralphie’s mom says the new interactions are priceless, and she’s proud of the positive changes in her son.

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“He seems happier. He’s laughing more. He seems more confident,” Koppelman said. “He fist-pumps and says ‘Yes!’ when he catches one and then gives people high-fives and shouts ‘I did it!’ His father and I are both proud of him and how far he has come in only a week’s time.”