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Pokemon Go: making the community and social interaction accessible

pokemon go logoBattling Blastoise for control. Running to capture Dragonite. Going a distance to evolve a Pidgey. All of these actions are motivation to get off the couch and out of the house.

For some individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the thrill of the Pokemon Go chase and the rewards of character collection and evolution are perfect incentives for getting out of their comfort zone.

Pokemon Go, a virtual reality game that lets players use their smart phones to capture Pokemon and battle for gyms in real world spaces, requires players to leave the house, walk long distances, and explore their communities. The game often puts players in contact with other players searching for the same PokeStops, Pokemon, and Gyms.

Though autism's unique challenges can make it hard for people on the spectrum to find common interests with others and make social connections, Pokemon Go is bridging the social gap for individuals with ASD, encouraging community engagement and also providing a mutual subject of interest with other players.

"I have seen my son not only interacting comfortably with other kids, neurotypical and autistic, but also better with adults," Haddayr Copley-Woods, mom of a child with ASD, said. "His stepparent had found it a little difficult to figure out how to interact with my son, and now the two of them go on 'Pokewalks' together, getting exercise and fresh air, and they talk a mile a minute about their finds."

Video games, 90s nostalgia, and obsessive attention to "catching 'em all" may be the perfect recipe for sparking interest and motivation for some individuals with autism. The ease of game-centric interaction makes Pokemon Go an entryway for exercise, community engagement, and relationship building. It's a world unto itself, but it's one that both individuals with autism and neurotypical individuals can enter.

"As an adult with autism, I feel the most impactful part of this game is the sense of community it instills," Jillian Nelson, an avid Pokemon Go player said. "When you are a person who wants to have friends, and make those vital human connections, but often gets hoodwinked by anxiety or social awkwardness, it is indescribable to be able to download a free app that gives you a key to this unusual universe where bikers and school kids, business men and fitness fanatics are connected with those typically labelled 'geek'."

Nelson spent her birthday in downtown St. Paul's Rice Park playing Pokemon Go. "I spent my birthday with several hundred strangers searching out the elusive Dragonite," she said. "I didn't find him, but I had countless conversations about strategy, previous days' catches, the sociological phenomenon happening, and even about how to play the ukulele. I found a place where it was safe to be just me, where eye contact didn't matter, and everyone else was just as fixated as me."