Judith Newman has a terrific, touching article in the New York Times about her son’s relationship with Siri:
Just how bad a mother am I? I wondered, as I watched my 13-year-old son deep in conversation with Siri. Gus has autism, and Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” on the iPhone, is currently his B.F.F.
Just read the whole piece. It’s worth your time.
More broadly, Newman touches on something that doesn’t get enough attention: about 1% of children in the United States (about 7.6 million kids) have diagnoses of autism-spectrum disorder (ASD), and for these kids, tablets aren’t just cool accessories. For Newman’s son, Siri is great; for other kids, mobile devices can be transformative.
How transformative? For kids with ASD who have trouble communicating verbally, tablets radically reduce the cost of augmentation technology. Traditional dedicated augmentative and alternative-communication devices can cost thousands of dollars. For example, the Jabbla Smart, a small AAC tablet running proprietary software and Windows CE, retails for $3995. In contrast, the most expensive AAC app for the iPad—Proloquo2Go—costs $189.99. Simpler apps sell for $10 or less. You can get an Android tablet with apps designed for ASD users for under $200.
So tablets are bringing down the price of communication by 90-95%. This isn’t a “radical” difference in the “this new social coupon code sharing app will disrupt the retail deal-seeking experience” sense of radical, i.e., not radical at all. This is printing press and internal combustion engine-level radical.
Tablets provide other benefits that turn our conventional wisdom about children, technology and sociability upside down. A Toronto, Canada, project helping nonverbal children communicate with iPads found that the devices "boost attention spans, learning, as well as communication." Not only did they communicate more quickly with teachers and parents than they could with cards or printed pictures, but the children would use iPads to communicate and play games with each other. As University of Toronto professor Rhonda McEwen (and the parent of a study participant) explained,
They were using it to connect with each other, playing a puzzle and then taking it over to another child to show them…. Or a child would be using it, and another child would come over and they’d make space, and we’d see joint attention. They’d look at each other, share a smile and really engage.
Communicating with adults through an iPad can also be more comfortable because it gives those interactions a measure of helpful predictability and simplicity. As McEwen put it, "They like consistency. If they have to read facial expressions they get lost."
And children whose poor motor skills prevent them from using computer mice or touchpads can often use tablet-based apps.
Finally, for older children, the fact that tablets are everyday devices used by all kinds of people makes the children feel more a part of the social mainstream.
Newman argues that “In a world where the commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us, it’s worth considering another side of the story.” This is that other side.