The dining room at the Ritz-Carlton was subdued, silverware’s clink muffled by all that fine white linen, and conversations were conducted in low, cultured, carefully modulated voices. Temple Grandin’s interruption rang out like an emergency announcement, drawing amused stares as she bluntly informed the waiter of her requirements. I was young enough to cringe, but as the lunch interview continued, I began to sit up straighter, laugh more freely. Grandin’s behavior—shaped by a mind on the brilliant end of the autism spectrum—was being indulged as one more eccentricity of the very rich. No one fainted with shock, no plates shattered. Soon, instead of being mortified, I envied her unselfconsciousness.
That was decades ago; she has since written many books, the newest being Navigating Autism; taught thousands of university students; redesigned life for farm animals; earned formal accolades and immeasurable gratitude from parents all over the world. This week I saw her interviewed on CBS, declaring with her usual spirited confidence that schools need to restore all the hands-on classes: “art, sewing, cooking, woodworking, theater, music.” Kids need a better transition from school to work, and they need more concrete experiences: “They just don’t have any idea where anything comes from!” We are leaning too much on technology, she added, using it as a babysitter. And for children on the spectrum, spending hours online might do more harm than it seems.
This caught me off guard. I have met several young people living somewhere on the spectrum, and they all love computer games and online learning. Headphones help them tune out sudden, loud, or distracting noises. The tech gives them control, and it allows them to interact in a way that is more black-and-white, less confusing.
Grandin points to research that influenced her own thinking, emphasizing the need for children to engage with other people, hard as that might be, and register their reaction to different behaviors. “The problem with watching endless videos is that the video does not react to the child’s responses,” she says. She was thrilled to read a recommendation from Common Sense Media limiting screen time to ten hours a week max—the same rule her mother imposed for television. When she sees kids with autism spectrum disorder focused intensely on a video game, she wishes they could bring some of that concentration to the outdoor world, studying a tiny frog or a wildflower while stress ebbs from their nervous system; feeling free from society’s judgment in the wilderness; hanging out with animals, who think in sensory ways that are easier for them to translate. “Autistic kids aren’t doing enough outside,” Grandin told The New York Times. “They’re stuck in the basement playing video games.”
A review of multiple scientific studies showed that individuals with ASD consistently struggled harder with problematic internet use and showed more symptoms of internet addiction—depression, inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, opposition, and escapism. Another review found children and adults with ASD to be more vulnerable to the problematic use of video games.
At conferences, Grandin often meets parents who are on the autism spectrum themselves—yet have successful careers and social lives. Why are their kids suffering more? Because they are not learning to work at a young age, she suspects. Thrust in front of babysitter screens, they do not interact with the physical world. Nor, her second reason, do they interact much with their peers, playing outside after school and on weekends. Instead, they are glued to their screens, stuck within that artificial world where they can thrive—but only within its parameters. Set up with a video game, a kid who might otherwise be screaming or withdrawn settles into a happy trance state. What parent would not encourage that?
Professionals climb on board, too. A recent article in the International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education describes “applying computer technology to teach children with autism spectrum disorder to initiate requests for assistance.” The researchers say “new software was developed in this study so that the instructional procedure could be conducted automatically by a computer device.” Slowly, requests for assistance increased. But would that translate to a situation in which you had to ask a human being for help?
Another study concludes that: “the use of technological advancements such as virtual agents, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality undoubtedly provides a comfortable environment that promotes constant learning for people with ASD.”
This is a larger question: How much should education cater to your comfort level and how hard should it push you. Parents are less strict and demanding these days, and teachers turn cartwheels to keep their students’ attention. The new casualness has lowered expectations throughout the educational system. The rigorous teachers who make for great stories—remember Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love?—are out of fashion. Teaching that way takes a lot of energy, and when parents are threatening to sue you for hurting their kid’s feelings and the head of school is threatening to fire you for giving Cs, why bother? Multiply that disincentive when a child is already struggling, overstimulated, prone to tantrums.
Bright kids with ASD do exceptionally well with computers, because so many of the obstacles that keep them from using their fine minds have been removed. They are in their element, I am tempted to write, but that might not even be true. All we know is that they are in an element that is more comfortable, that lets them think. Which is wonderful. But sometimes we use accommodation to narrow expectations. What kids with ASD struggle with is making eye contact, decoding facial expressions and body language, and expressing empathy. Screens are a lousy place to learn any of that.
I felt so enlightened, cheering on a young friend and assuring him that companies would snap him up because he is a genius at technology. I was not wrong: An article in the Harvard Business Review notes that “many people with these disorders have higher-than-average abilities; research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.”
Going with the flow is always easier. Somebody’s social style makes you uncomfortable, but you find out they are a whiz at tech and can solve problems for you, so you decide that is where they belong in life. Popped into cubicles in IT departments, people with ASD usually cause little trouble, dramatically increase productivity, and seem quite happy. If a job feels right, that is all any of us can ask from our work life. But first we need to be exposed to all sorts of learning, all sorts of situations. Then, well-rounded and more at ease in the world, we can land happily in a place that plays to our strengths.
I had begun to stereotype, thinking of computers as the ideal comfort zone for many people who are neurodiverse and mentally whisking them away to their cubicles or Play Stations. Pair them up with a little gray box, and their eccentricities feel more manageable. A big part of this is about society’s comfort level, too.
But we who are boringly neurotypical have a lot to learn from the flat honesty and startling insights of people with ASD, and they have a lot to learn about messy or nuanced social interactions from us. Those exchanges take a lot more effort—on both sides—than automatically relegating those whose brains are wired differently to a chair in front of a screen. We all spend too much time there already.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.