When my husband first downloaded the Pokémon Go last week, I couldn’t help but laugh. I was never into Pokémon to begin with, and never quite understood the phenomenon. So I certainly had no intention of downloading the app myself. (Plus, I have an old iPhone and there’s only so much storage space that bad boy can take.) But then, like many of us, I gave in; and within minutes of playing, I got the hype. I was hooked.
Soon, my husband and I started competing — comparing notes on which characters we found, and discussing with great importance things like Zubats and Ekans and Pikachus. And then we started playing with our 10-year-old son, Norrin. Like many 10-year-olds, he loves video games and playing mobile app games. But he also has autism, so socialization and communication can be difficult for him. Norrin also has very specific activities that he enjoys and we are always trying to introduce new things to broaden his interests. Playing Pokémon Go hasn’t just gotten us out of the house, it’s given us something new we can do as a family, and it’s helped Norrin’s socialization tremendously. And it’s pretty clear he’s not the only one.
For the last few days, my Facebook friend Lenore Koppelman and her adorable 6 year-old-son Ralphie have also been getting a wee bit obsessed with the app — so much so, in fact, that one of Lenore’s recent posts about their love of the game has gone viral for its heartwarming message. That’s because Ralphie, just like my son Norrin, has autism, and Lenore’s post highlighted so beautifully just how big an impact Pokémon Go has made on his life, too.
Originally shared on July 12, Lenore’s lengthy status update first expressed gratitude to her friend, Ren Allen, for telling her about Pokémon Go, and also Nintendo for creating the app.
“I finally introduced Ralphie to Pokémon Go” she wrote. “This thing is AMAZING,” she shared. “MY AUTISTIC CHILD IS SOCIALIZING. Talking to people … Participating in pragmatic speech. Sharing something in common.”
I remember reading her status update myself, and giving it a “like” because I know just what those moments mean.
But since then, Lenore’s status update has been shared over 800 times, clearly striking a cord with others on Facebook.
Lenore admits to me that when she first heard about Pokémon app, she wasn’t ready to buy into the hype either. She even joked about the obsession of others who played the game. However, after being encouraged to try it by her friend Ren, whose teenage son also has autism, Lenore decided to give it a go.
When Ralphie caught his first Pokémon at a local Astoria, Queens bakery, she tells me he “shrieked with excitement.”
While Pokémon Go isn’t the first thing that Ralphie’s been this excited about, it’s certainly the first thing he’s been interested in that other kids his age can relate to, as well. Typically, Ralphie likes geography and reading his Atlas or watching space documentaries. Pokémon Go is something that he has in common with his peers.
But the game isn’t just helping Ralphie socialize and communicate; it’s also helping to break him out of his rigid routines. Like many kids with autism, Ralphie thrives on a structured schedule. For example, going to the playground in the early evening isn’t something he wants to do: it’s not part of his routine. But when Ralphie learned there were Pokeman in the playground, Lenore tells me “he begged to go.” Needless to say, his parents were more than happy to comply with his request. Once at the playground, Lenore says “other kids ran up to him to hunt for Pokémon together.” Playing the game is giving Ralphie the freedom to explore his neighborhood with flexibility and with a little less anxiety.
“If Pokémon Go were like a typical video game, I don’t think it would have made such an impact,” Lenore says.
While it warms my heart that the game is having such an amazing impact on kids with autism, its surprising benefits don’t just end there. A children’s hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan has incorporated the game into patients’ physical therapy sessions. It’s helping adults with depression and agoraphobia conquer their fears and give them a reason to go outside. And it’s introducing strangers all over the world, bringing people together who otherwise might have not met before.
Of course, as with all crazes, this one has certainly attracted its fair share of haters. But when I ask Lenore about the Pokémon critics, she tells me she wishes they would just “let people enjoy this.”
And I couldn’t agree more.