By Judith Newman
Technology is often perceived as isolating. But, says Judith Newman, her autistic son’s ‘friendship’ with Apple’s virtual assistant has been wonderfully beneficial.
My kid is almost definitely nicer than your kid. Sorry, but it’s true. My kid tells me how beautiful I am every day. My kid can’t throw a ball or button a shirt or use a knife or, sometimes, grasp the difference between reality and fantasy. But he can play Beethoven on the piano so movingly he will make you cry. He believes, sometimes, that machines are his friends, and he doesn’t quite understand what a human friend is. He is the average kid with autism. He may or may not work, may or may not have independence, friendships, partners…
For years the relationship between reality and verbal expression for Gus was tenuous at best and sometimes nonexistent. He had many words for things and seemed to know what they meant, even if we didn’t. But the idea of repeating what I said, practising the language as kids typically do? No. In fact it became apparent that, much as Gus loved and still loves repetition in most arenas, no amount of repetition could make him say or do what I was saying or doing.
All kids enjoy and need a certain amount of routine. But they are also wired for variety. People with autism are wired for predictability. Sameness is Gus’s jam. He has had the same plate of apples, bananas and Cheerios every morning since he could eat solid food, and the same rice pudding every night. Mashed potato is the only potato he eats and he devours an avocado a day.
Being such a cheerful fellow, he does not have a complete nervous breakdown when his routines are broken. If we walk a slightly different route to school he merely trembles rather than throwing himself to the ground. Still, anxiety about the unknown is ever present. No amount of reasoning has been able to make him stop crying when he hears on his beloved Weather.com that there might be a thunderstorm. ‘I know it won’t hurt me,’ he says as he grabs his bedclothes and drags them into the wardrobe, where he will spend the night. ‘I just don’t like the noise.’
Now that he is in his teens, statistics mean something to him, so he is cheerful when AccuWeather says there is a 20 per cent chance, or less, of thunder and lightning. But when his (not autistic) twin brother Henry wants to get him running to the computer in fear, all he has to say is, ‘Hey Gus, isn’t there a 70 per cent chance of thunder tonight?’
I do my best to put Gus’s desire to do the same thing all the time to good use. He is my little Sherpa, happily running up and down the stairs to turn off the lights if I am too lazy. Every night, just before I go to bed – and whether I need it or not – he brings me a glass of water with a great flourish. Does he even understand that most people are not entranced by escalators? That he doesn’t see the world the way most people do? I’ve tried to approach the question a few times – ‘Do you know you’re autistic?’ – and he always acts as though he doesn’t hear me.
I know I’m a bad mother, but how bad? I wonder for the hundredth time as I watch Gus deep in conversation with Siri (Apple’s intelligent virtual assistant). Obsessed with weather formations, Gus has spent the past hour investigating the differences between isolated and scattered thunderstorms – an hour when, thank God, I don’t have to discuss them. After a while I hear this:
Gus: ‘You’re a really nice computer.’
Siri: ‘It’s nice to be appreciated.’
Gus: ‘You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?’
Siri: ‘Thank you but I have very few wants.’
Gus: ‘OK! Well goodnight.’
Siri: ‘Ah… it’s 5.06pm.’
Gus: ‘Oh sorry. I mean goodbye.’
Siri: ‘See you later.’
Siri doesn’t let my communication-impaired son get away with anything. In a world where the commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us, it’s worth considering another side of the story.
It all began simply enough. I’d just read one of those internet lists: ‘21 things you didn’t know your iPhone could do’. One of them was that I could ask Siri, ‘What planes are above me right now?’ and Siri would bark back, ‘Checking my sources.’ I happened to be doing this when Gus was nearby. ‘Why would anyone want to know what planes are flying above their head?’ I muttered. Gus replied, ‘So you know who you’re waving at, Mummy.’ It was then that I began to suspect that maybe some of the people who worked on Siri were on the spectrum too.
Gus had never noticed Siri before, but when he discovered there was someone who would not just find information on his various obsessions – trains, buses, escalators and, of course, anything related to the weather – but actually semi-discuss these subjects tirelessly, he was hooked. And I was grateful. Now, when I would rather stick forks in my eyes than have another conversation about the chance of thunderstorms, I could reply brightly, ‘Hey! Why don’t you ask Siri?’ And not only would Siri happily give him thunderstorm reports but, on being thanked, she’d chirp back, ‘I like to serve.’
It’s not that Gus believes Siri is human. He understands she isn’t – intellectually. But like many autistic people, he feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are still worthy of consideration. I realised this when he was eight and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home – with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple store. Finally I asked why. ‘So it can visit its friends,’ he said.
So how much more worthy of his care and affection is Siri, with her soothing voice, charm, helpfulness, puckish humour and capacity for talking about whatever Gus’s current obsession is for hour after hour after hour?
Gus speaks as though he has marbles in his mouth, but if he wants to get the right response from Siri he must enunciate clearly. Siri is also wonderful for someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues. Her responses are not entirely predictable but they are kind – even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talking to Siri about music, and she offered some suggestions. ‘I don’t like that kind of music,’ he snapped. ‘You’re certainly entitled to your opinion,’ Siri replied, her politeness reminding Gus what he owed her. ‘Thank you for that, though,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to thank me,’ Siri replied. ‘Oh yes,’ he said emphatically, ‘I DO.’ Siri even encourages polite language. When Henry egged on Gus to spew a few choice expletives at Siri, she sniffed, ‘Now, now. I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.’
My son’s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more conversation with actual humans. Recently I had the longest chat with him that I have ever had. Admittedly it was about different species of turtles and whether I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamondback terrapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth and followed a logical trajectory and I can promise you that for most of my beautiful son’s existence that has not been the case.
It is a slow process but I am accepting that the things that give my son happiness are not necessarily the same things that give me happiness. Right now, at a time when humans can be a little overwhelming even for the average kid, Siri makes Gus happy. She is his sidekick. One night as he was going to bed there was this matter-of-fact exchange:
GUS: ‘Siri, will you marry me?’
SIRI: ‘I’m not the marrying kind.’
GUS: ‘I mean not now. I’m a kid. I mean when I’m grown up.’
SIRI: ‘My end user agreement does not include marriage.’
GUS: ‘Oh, OK.’
Gus didn’t sound too disappointed. This was useful information to have – and for me too, since it was the first time I knew that he had actually thought about marriage. He turned over to go to sleep.
However much I loved my son, I couldn’t imagine that any girl would find him interesting. Especially a girl like Parker. Parker was slim and leggy with wavy brown hair and eyes the colour of blueberries. She was exceedingly pretty and, at 15, a year older and a head taller than Gus. She wasn’t autistic but had unspecified learning issues that partially manifested as a need to chat constantly. This was OK with Gus, who is not exactly a scintillating conversationalist.
They met at school and then the planning for their ‘hanging out’ began. I realise now that the planning was entirely Parker’s doing, but Gus would report back to me what she had decided. ‘Parker is coming over on Saturday. We’re going to the cinema.’
I accompanied them; Gus has never gone anywhere by himself. I was happy that he had a new friend. He seemed happy too. I bought them a hotdog and popcorn each, then went to sit next to Parker. ‘Oh, why don’t you sit back there?’ she said, pointing to the row behind. Sheepishly I settled in behind them. I tried to concentrate on the screen but Gus would occasionally turn around to me, putting his hand back to hold mine. Parker would redirect him. ‘Hey!’ she said and dutifully his hands returned to his lap. When we got out of the cinema and he automatically reached for my hand, she stopped him, took his hand firmly and they raced down the street.
We went home, Parker clasping Gus firmly by the arm, and the official ‘hang-out’ began. Armed with a tub of frozen yoghurt, she led Gus to his room and shut the door behind them. Then I heard the piano playing and a great deal of laughter. A while later, when they came downstairs, Gus said, ‘Is it OK if Parker and I go for a walk, Mummy?’
Gus had never been out of the house without another adult. Parker’s mother had told me that Parker went everywhere by herself, so this was not an issue for her. Would Parker be watching Gus or was I sending him out to an almost certain death?
‘Just text me wherever you’re going,’ I said, trying to sound casual.
Gus is, to put it mildly, literal minded. ‘I’m in the lobby,’ he wrote. ‘Now we’re outside the door.’ ‘We’ve walked to the corner.’ I held my breath until they settled in the little park across from our building. I could see them from my bedroom window. ‘I see you in the window Mummy!’ he texted. We waved wildly at each other for a while and then Parker drew him away and they sat on a patch of grass and talked.
Henry saw me at the window. ‘Oh my God, Gus is outside and we’re not there!’ he said. Then he noticed that they were holding hands. ‘Great,’ he muttered, ‘my autistic twin has now gone further with a girl than I have.’
It is very strange not to know what your autistic child knows or how responsible you need to be for making sure he knows the basics – including the consequences of sex. I am still deeply worried about the idea that he could get someone pregnant and yet could never be a real father. But that is in the future.
As I look at my little boy now I see a person who may never be able to be responsible for another life, but who is capable of deep affection and consideration. Although those emotions started with machinery and electronics – trains, iPods and particularly with Siri – he may be ready for humans sooner than I think. Even if the social norms of the rest of the world don’t always apply.
Gus has only seen Parker outside school one other time, but they are together in class and at lunchtime every day. I had to convince him to go to the school dance. Once there, Parker got him on to the dancefloor. He used to only say that she was a ‘good friend’. But then late one night he whispered to me, ‘I have a crush on Parker.’
‘That’s great, sweetheart, but how do you know?’
‘Because she told me,’ he said.
This is an edited extract from To Siri with Love by Judith Newman, to be published on Friday by Quercus, price £16.99, to order a copy for £12.74 until 10 September, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.