Sep 01, 2016 1:00 AM

Author: Libby Mitchell


Pokemon GO is popular all over the world, and is being praised for improving players’ health by getting them up and moving. The benefits go beyond physical well-being though, also impacting the mental health of those with depression and anxiety, as well as people on the autism spectrum. “First of all, we know that regular exercise helps improve mental state,” says Matthew Woolley, PhD, a psychologist with University of Utah Health. “Beyond that, the structure of the game – giving immediate feedback for attainable goals – keeps players who may suffer from depression or anxiety interested and active.”

The structure of the game is what appeals to those on the autism spectrum as well. Julia Connelly, PhD, a psychologist with University of Utah Health's Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic has several patients currently playing the game, and their experiences have been very positive. “The graphics are appealing and the idea of collecting things and learning information about all of the characters is very enticing,” she says. “The game also taps into their ability to absorb incredible amounts of information, perseverance, and excitement about things that are interesting to them.”

Leaving the house can be difficult both for people with anxiety and those on the autism spectrum. Pokemon GO gives them a motivation to do both, since the game cannot be played from the comfort of home, but requires players to visit different locations. “I have noticed that several of my clients are more engaged and motivated in life,” says Connelly. “They want to leave the comforts of their own home to catch and collect Pokemon, they explore new places, they meet up with friends to go out together and turn this into a social experience.”

The game is also easing the difficulties of interacting with other people – since players already have something in common and speak a common “Pokelanguage.” “I have heard clients talk about meeting new people at Pokestops and engaging in conversation, which often is very challenging and anxiety provoking,” says Connelly. “It seems that being able to talk about the game, which they love and understand very well, helps build a bridge and structure to communicate with others.”

While Pokemon GO is helping those with anxiety and on the autism spectrum to get out and interact, there are some potential downfalls. For those with anxiety the very thing that brought them to it – the task of collecting the entire set – may end up causing problems. “If you’re an individual who already struggles with stress, being in this mental and physical state of stress for prolonged periods may be too overwhelming and increase stress in the long term,” says Woolley.

For people on the autism spectrum finding balance when playing the game can be a problem. They may become too lost in it and want to play all the time. It could also make motivating them to complete other tasks they do not enjoy as much difficult. “Parents often become quite frustrated and trying to pry an electronic device out of their children's hands can at times lead to meltdowns and difficult-to-manage behaviors,” says Connelly.

Of course, love of the game could also work to the advantage of parents of children on the autism spectrum. “It could be used as a motivator to get other things accomplished that are not fun, such as chores or school work,” says Connelly. “I could even see someone giving their child an ‘assignment’ to read up on a specific aspect of the game and (sneakily) get them to practice reading skills.”

psychology autism

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