My dad sent me this article, knowing I would have thoughts. The article is called, “Can an app for Google Glass offer a path out of autism?”
I become suspicious, immediately, of anything promising to “cure” or “fix” or “save kids from” autism. So, my defenses were immediately engaged.
I have read a little bit about Google Glass over the last year or so, but am certainly no expert on the technology, nor do I claim to be. But, the idea, at least as I understood it, is this app (called “Brain Power”) would be used to encourage autistic children to make eye contact. The app flashes cartoon characters on the screen where another individual’s face is (e.g., a parent), to “lure” their eyes up to the individual’s eyes. Essentially, tricking them into making eye contact. Once they look up, they receive points, and the character is taken away.
First of all – I am a huge fan of technology. Almost every single one of my students use it for learning in some form, and I believe its implications are limitless. So my issue with Brain Power is not the fact that it’s technology. In fact, I believe that Google Glass in general could absolutely be added to the arsenal of tools that benefit our autistic kids.
Several things bother me. For starters, I have said many times, and it is no secret that I believe, that autism is not a “condition”, is not a “problem”, is not an “epidemic.” And I have a lot of reservations for a company who operates with this fundamental belief, as Brain Power seems to. Autism comes with its challenges, but so does neurotypicalism.
The next issue is what Brain Power is aiming to do. Is it REALLY aiming to improve social communication, and social thinking skills? Or is yet another behavioral approach, aimed at reducing certain behaviors? Because I am thinking the latter. I believe in Social Thinking, in teaching social communication, at breaking down the fundamentals to help our kids understand social interaction. I teach it every day of the year, and I’m all for it. But teaching kids how to interact, why to interact, is not the same as a strict behavioral approach. We are not requiring our kids to do something without helping them understand why.
Another app digitally accentuates the person’s eyes to attract attention, because autistic children are known to focus on the speaker’s mouth.
Well, I can’t tell you how many autistic kids and adults have expressed that they can’t make eye contact, because it’s too damn painful. We actually teach kids to look at a mouth, or a nose, or an ear – we teach them to fake it, that no, we aren’t going to force them into making direct eye contact, but by looking in the general direction of someone’s face, they are still showing that they’re listening, paying attention, showing interest. Yes, there are kids who truly don’t understand the concept of why they would need to look at someone’s face to begin with. So we start there. But it’s not looked at as a problem to be fixed. Of all of the zillions of challenges that come with autism, I have never, nor do I know anyone who has ever, thought, “Oh! You know what? A really important thing that we need to fix is make all of our kids make eye contact.” Because it’s just not crucial. Communicating wants and needs is. Coping strategies for anxiety is. Making the world functional and accessible is.
And I wonder, why is Brain Power so intent on increasing eye contact? Is it truly because they think it’s better for the autistic kids themselves, for the kids’ quality of life, or is it to try and fit our kids into a mold of “normal” that in reality doesn’t exist? Do their beliefs come from the same people who believe that we should eliminate scripting and stimming? Who are they really looking to benefit here?
The article concludes with:
Attending were Sara Gaynor, a special-education teacher, and her 11-year-old son, Sean. After trying out Glass, Gaynor said her son told her: “They’re awesome. I think those glasses make me smarter.”
Later, Gaynor recounted how Sean jumped up, arms outreached, and told her, “I think I am breaking out of an autism prison!”
I don’t know Sara Gaynor. I don’t know her son. I do believe that he liked the glasses. Like I said, I think a lot of kids would. I think the glasses hold great potential. But the way in which this quote was written into the article makes it sound like glasses = smarter, because autism = dumb. And Sean’s quote at the end? I don’t know how much I believe that this boy truly said those words. But if he did, it breaks my heart. Because it means he was raised believing his autism is a prison. And what implications for any autistic kid reading that article – to plant the thought in their own heads that their neurology, their wiring, is something so terrible that it should be compared to a prison.
I need to do more research, I need to read more about the company and their studies and their beliefs. Again, I do not claim to be an expert on this, to understand all of it, to fully know every detail about how the app would work. But at first glance, I am more than a little concerned.