Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an editorial by Judith Newman about her autistic child and the bond he has developed with Siri, the iPhone app. After discovering there was “someone who would not just find information on his various obsessions…but actually semi-discuss these subjects tirelessly,” Newman has found that her son Gus now has a “friend,” one who doesn’t judge him when he fails to pick up on interpersonal cues or indulges in esoteric interests.
Indeed, thanks to his extensive use of the knowledge navigator, Gus has improved his enunciation, learned important rules about etiquette, and even become comfortable carrying out prolonged conversations. “It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human,” Newman explains. “He does—intellectually.”
Is this healthy? The short answer is an unequivocal “Yes,” but with a complicated subtext. As someone who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism (colloquially known as Asperger’s Syndrome) when I was in high school in the late ‘90s, I can say from firsthand experience that the digital revolution has made a world of difference in my own life. If we are to fully realize the potential of these technological advances for autistic youth, however, we must fully understand what causes those benefits in the first place.
Because Gus clearly struggles with a more severe form of autism than my own, I can’t neatly compare what I gleaned from my childhood with his own experiences. That said, I was struck by one major parallel: As I put it in an article I wrote shortly after the Sandy Hook shooter was revealed to have had Asperger’s Syndrome, I spent the better part of my childhood as a voracious bookworm because “there are no unspoken rules that you’re supposed to ‘just know’ when you enter the realm of words and information.” While other kids my age were making friends and starting their earliest relationships, I spent any time I wasn’t studying scouring my school, community, and home libraries.
What Siri seems to do for Gus, books did for me. Not only did they allow me to both flesh out existing intellectual passions and discover new ones but, like Gus Newman, I used the impersonal world of information to develop my social skills. As I delved further into the worlds of history and political science, my preferred disciplines (more on that in a moment), I absorbed fundamental lessons about appropriate professional and personal interactions that my condition had made it excruciatingly challenging to pick up through instinct and first-hand observation.
Similarly, even though books didn’t simulate direct interactivity like Siri, I still developed meaningful relationships with the innumerable men and women whose books passed through my fingers; my “conversations” with these authors, whether internal monologues or verbalized expressions of opinion, were as real to me as I imagine the discussions with Siri are to Gus Newman.
Finally, although I’d never had trouble striking up conversation with strangers (quite to the contrary, I was notorious for spontaneously lecturing my peers on subjects that interested me regardless of whether the enthusiasm was mutual) it was through books that I learned how to have those discussions by talking to instead of at the other party, although I’m still told that I talk in paragraphs instead of conversational sentences.
In short, Siri is performing the same essential service for autistic children today that books did for me, albeit in a more technologically sophisticated manner. Because children with Asperger’s will be inclined to “retreat from what they can’t understand by plunging into what they can,” Siri helps them acquire vital interpersonal skills as they pursue their interests. Indeed, considering that people with Asperger’s often develop specialized intellectual skills because of their autistic traits, it may have the dual benefit of cultivating their unique strengths even as it helps them overcome their social weaknesses.
Of course, there is always the danger that a method of escape will become an end unto itself instead of a means unto an end, whether it’s talking to an iPhone or burying one’s self in a book. Fortunately, technology can be a very useful tool in preventing this. The key is for the dynamic between the autistic child and his or her “outlet” to transition from a passive relationship to an active one.
More often than not, this starts with the child learning to stop “absorbing” and start “creating.” Because my chief passions were history and political science, I began writing editorials—first for college newspapers and the occasional larger press but then, starting with my first publication at an online news site in 2012, as a bona fide career. Not only did this allow me to turn a manifestation of my autism into my bread-and-butter, it gave me a sense of power and control over my own life that I’d never known before. While I could have conceivably become a pundit even without the Internet, it undoubtedly enormously facilitated the process.
Fortunately for autistic children, there are very few interests that can’t find similar expression through the infinite venues available in cyberspace. The post-Internet world rewards those with a genuine enthusiasm for and expertise in a given topic by guaranteeing that, with enough persistence, they can find an audience which will share their passion and respect their knowledge, from blogs and message boards to YouTube videos and organizations that will publish their opinions (whether written or recorded).
Once an autistic person has found what Mark Twain once astutely called an individual’s “own true work,” he or she will find that valuable interpersonal relationships follow almost organically. The skills needed to garner respect and success online are very similar to those in the flesh-and-blood world—the ability to network, honor deadlines, say what you mean and mean what you say.
In my experience, the vast majority of people with AS have trouble holding down a job or, at the very least, feeling comfortable in professional environments (myself included). Whereas this challenge can be insurmountable when one is left with no middle ground between direct confrontation or avoiding it entirely, the Internet allows autistic children to engage in real interactions behind the safety of their computer screens and comforted by the familiarity of the enthusiasms that first drew them in.
That said, professional achievement and intellectual fulfillment aren’t the only objectives that matter. “Of all the worries the parent of an autistic child has,” Newman explained, “the uppermost is: Will he find love? Or even companionship?”
Fortunately, studies have already shown that social media helps people with autism develop confidence in a non-threatening environment. In addition, like any lonely individual who gradually discovers kinship with a larger community, people with Asperger’s who come into their own through the opportunities available online frequently wind up with a plethora of close friendships almost by default.
The same is true for romance; despite having entered several relationships through dating sites, it’s hardly a coincidence that I met my last two girlfriends when they contacted me after reading one or more of my articles. Just as social media helps autistics by removing the cues and countless unspoken rules that trip them up in the non-digital world, so too can their ability to speak directly to others purely through the prism of their interests help them make deep connections that may not have been possible in the pre-Internet era.
When I reflect on the changes in society’s collective understanding of autism since I was first diagnosed barely a decade-and-a-half ago, it’s hard not to feel optimistic. It’s true that we have a long way to go toward erasing the stigmas associated with autism—not only with the label itself, but with the traits caused by autism that are frequently met with confusion or scorn. At the same time, the digital revolution not only offers valuable tools for personal growth to people with AS; it also provides them with new frontiers of self-expression.
If there is one benefit that our era has to offer autistics which overshadows all the others, it is the fact that it gives us the greatest gift of all—a voice.