For those among us born on the autism spectrum, daily life is a radically challenging experience. Imagine what it’s like trying to raise a child in this position, who does not perceive the world as you do and can’t form bonds with his or her own parents, let alone peers. Thank goodness for the many wonders we enjoy in a modern wealthy nation. In past centuries—or less privileged locations—a child with such cognitive challenges would simply have no chance to survive, not having a sense of who to ask for food or where to sleep in safety. But what if such a child had a magic window through which to connect with others?
As long as the other person has a magic window, too, they can form a relationship. The best part is that the window can be packed up and carried around in your pocket. That magic window is not only real, but exists in the form of a game. As an educator and researcher, I have seen firsthand the power of a popular video game franchise to open the doors closed by cognitive hindrances like autism.
When I worked as an education advisor in Japan, we had a third-grade student named Kenta. He was a great kid, but could barely communicate, making friendships out of the question. The only things he seemed to care about were collecting insects (very common for Japanese children) and Pokémon. When I saw that the Japanese National Science Museum was doing a Pokémon-themed biology exhibit, I was inspired to try working with Kenta by nontraditional means. I challenged him to a Pokémon battle.
Within the video games, you can interact with other players via wireless. Anyone in the vicinity can accept the call to compete. It took a few tries, but a little boy who had to be corralled all day just so he wouldn’t wander off into traffic was sending me messages. Over the ensuing weeks and months, we developed a kind of ‘language’ using preprogrammed phrases within the game. One day, Kenta showed up for our weekly session and greeted me. With his own voice. In English. As he had been present for the rest of his cohort’s English class, he was exposed to the phrase, “Hello, how are you?” It was an extraordinary moment.
I do not mean to say that Pokémon holds the cure for something as complex and well-studied as autism. We need larger datasets from controlled trials before any clinical implications can be made. However, as anecdotes go, this one is rather impactful. And Kenta is not alone. In my work recording the stories of Pokémon enthusiasts from around the world, I’ve encountered similar instances and met some incredible people whose lives were changed by means of this one franchise. There is even quite a bit of speculation and some evidence that the primary creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, may well have formulated the games with this type of facilitated interaction in mind due to his own personal history of social difficulties.
In the future, I will share some of these oral histories and discuss what parents, educators, researchers, and everyone else can do to take advantage of Pokémon’s incredible therapeutic potential, along with ways to engage other popular culture elements in a positive, meaningful way. When video games, superheroes, and pop music are everywhere, we have no excuse for not embracing and appreciating the things that young people care about.