Friends With Siri
October 17, 2014 8:54 PM   Subscribe

How Apple’s Siri Became One Autistic Boy's B.F.F.

But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when he was 8, 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.
posted by stp123 (40 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
This was super sweet.
posted by MissySedai at 9:07 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


“See, that’s the wonderful thing about technology being able to help with some of these behaviors,”

A chilling statement throughout history.

Personally I'm on team red-eared slider.
posted by angerbot at 9:17 PM on October 17, 2014


What the hell? The basic gist of the story is "disabled person gets some technology that makes their life better/more enjoyable than it would be otherwise" and your reaction is "CHILLING. ALSO, I LIKE TURTLES."

Seriously?
posted by sparkletone at 9:26 PM on October 17, 2014 [28 favorites]


Steve Is Resting Inside?

Actually, it's way beyond "makes their life more enjoyable" because tweaking such interfaces could make autistic people's adult lives much more productive, useful, etc., earning them more respect, tolerance, etc. from actual humans. It's the opposite of chilling.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:38 PM on October 17, 2014 [11 favorites]


I hope someone develops an app that can build on this. Some autistic people have difficulty with eye contact and interpreting people's mental states based on facial expressions. I could see an app that would start out as an 'object with a voice' but over time through interaction and game-like play, slowly evolve into a 'real' face. Perhaps it could even use the FaceTime camera to judge things like eye contact and the amount of time they interact with it and adjust it's 'speed' to maintain a pace with the user.

I'm not saying it would be some wonder-app, but it could be of use as a tool to help those with autism interact more easily in social situations.
posted by chambers at 9:46 PM on October 17, 2014 [13 favorites]


This is a really cool story. For all the handwringing about the negative effects of technology on the youths, I think we're going to start seeing some really interesting emergent behaviors along these lines, where uses appear that no one dreamed of when they originally created the technology. I know family members of mine who aren't on the spectrum, but who have struggled through their lives with social cues and conversational rules. I think this could have been very helpful for them. It's going to be cool to see what kinds of things start to appear in a world where people have grown up with modern smartphones.
posted by protocoach at 9:55 PM on October 17, 2014 [4 favorites]


Charming, although I must say Siri seems to work way better for him than it does for me. Just getting it to recognise the words I uttered takes about six tries and as for understanding what I actually want to know, forget it.
posted by Segundus at 9:56 PM on October 17, 2014


Disabled people often get the short shrift where technological advances are concerned, but Apple seems to be one of the few to somehow manage to make their new tech accessible from the ground up. I'm glad to read how this worked out for Gus.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:19 PM on October 17, 2014 [9 favorites]


I have an autistic friend who is so excited about the iphone she finally managed to afford. She calls it her "robot butler" and is loading it up with all kinds of assistive things. She also uses to-do lists in an interesting way, like "make coffee" is a step by step list of everything needed for coffee, including "go to the kitchen", "open cabinet where coffee is", all the way through to "drink coffee". She loves it. I'm not sure how much she uses Siri, although I can imagine that as her facility with the phone increases she might use Siri more often.

I myself am not a phone person at all, but I'm really fond of some of the calming and ambient noise apps. They give me something to do in public when I notice my anxiety ratcheting up for no reason I can control.
posted by Mizu at 10:33 PM on October 17, 2014 [16 favorites]


Mizu, you should check out CalmKeeper. I use it when I get stressed on projects. A therapist I worked with introduced it to me. It's great for controlling anxiety.
posted by protocoach at 10:40 PM on October 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


Protocoach, I have friends who use and like CalmKeeper. I don't have an iDevice myself so I don't know if it will work for me. I usually don't need anything more than something different and guaranteed not to be stressful (I used to use Tetris back in the day, but that gets high stakes!) to get me back to good, luckily. CalmKeeper did a lot to help an acquaintance of mine who is much more prone to panic attacks when she was first going to college last winter.
posted by Mizu at 10:51 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


IT'S CHILLING BECAUSE THIS IS THE INEVITABLE END RESULT!
posted by steganographia at 12:03 AM on October 18, 2014


Finally, modern science has provided someone convenient to answer a constant stream of bothersome questions... other than yourself!
posted by markkraft at 3:25 AM on October 18, 2014


Here's a Radiolab episode related to the Ron Suskind book mentioned in the article.
posted by marguerite at 4:12 AM on October 18, 2014


Mainstream media outlets aimed at the solidly middle-class love "First Person Gushing About Apple Products" pieces. Probably because it offers their readers self validation and justification for their own consumerism.

The NYT just perfected the trope-- you can't criticize this because the focus is on a person with developmental issues. Well played. New York Times. Well played. Conspicuous consumption is good, and I'll just have to live with that or else I look like an ogre.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:41 AM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Conspicuous consumption is good, and I'll just have to live with that or else I look like an ogre.

Conspicuous consumption is all about keeping up with the Joneses, showing off your wealth and worth through your purchases. This is not that.

The article doesn't say 'buy an iPhone, it'll make you popular', it says 'iPhones could be a useful tool for helping people with exceptionally poor social skills learn how to interact with others, and possibly give their primary caregivers a break'. The two are close, I agree, but of all the reasons to flaunt an iPhone, doing so to hint that you might be on the autism spectrum isn't one of them.

Saying that media shouldn't report on the uses of technologies because of the danger that they might make those technologies look attractive strikes me as being more of a problem than the alternative.
posted by YAMWAK at 4:55 AM on October 18, 2014 [14 favorites]


naw, the looking like an ogre is built mostly on the decision to jump into a thread to show everyone how above the topic you, personally, are, without giving the impression that you even read the FPP, much less the link
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:07 AM on October 18, 2014 [16 favorites]


Reading the interactions between Siri and Gus totally made me tear up. Who cares if it's an iPhone or an Android or a robot or whatever; it's helping break through the constantly isolating wall of autism. The mother's joy and relief - and obvious love for her son - is marvelous. Thanks for posting this, if only so I can share it with my friends (including parents of autistic kids).
posted by flyingsquirrel at 5:10 AM on October 18, 2014 [9 favorites]


without giving the impression that you even read the FPP

Oh, I read the FPP. I maintain that this is a variation on a trend in "journalism" that goes back to at least the late 2000's, when I read a Newsweek "My Turn" piece that was a full-page article on why the author couldn't live without her iPod. This one becomes Not Self Indulgent through the addition of an autistic child.

It is an ad for Apple, down to the part where the principals visit an Apple Store so regularly and deliberately that they have specific rituals for doing so.

If this were an isolated work instead of a variation on 'better living through consumer products", I'd be touched. Instead, this is a marketing pitch with an angle that makes it unassailable. And yet I tried. I think I'm Cassandra, while you think I'm an asshole. Whatever, I'm endeavoring to keep it civil.

Conspicuous consumption is all about keeping up with the Joneses, showing off your wealth and worth through your purchases. This is not that.

iPhones are Veblen goods. The discovery that the product had a touching feature that actually made a difference was accidental.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:38 AM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting. That was really charming!

I like that she started her article asking how bad a mother she is. Not is she a bad mother, but assuming she is, and only querying the degree of her bad motherness.

Very funny writer. Interesting topic and technology interface. Glad you posted.
posted by Punctual at 5:39 AM on October 18, 2014


iPhones are Veblen goods. The discovery that the product had a touching feature that actually made a difference was accidental.

iPhones are Veblen goods, sure. That doesn't automatically make any article that references them an advertisement, any more than an article about a non-Veblen good can't be an advertisement. It's irrelevant do the discussion.

I'm having trouble seeing how any positive article about any desirable object could not cause offence from your position. The article exists. It may even benefit some people who can afford or already have an iPhone, and it makes for interesting or sentimental reading if it doesn't apply to you. I wish all advertisements were as good.

Would it make people more comfortable about owning / purchasing an iPhone? Yes. I believe that you think that was the primary objective of either the author when writing it, or NYT when publishing it, or both. I feel that that would be an unfair assumption. Yes, they could be manipulative, pro-consumption, propagandists, or they could be trying to fill column inches with something that they think their audience would like. Not mutually exclusive, of course, but I don't see the need for cynicism.
posted by YAMWAK at 6:01 AM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Check out this fascinating Wired article, too. These guys want computers to have engaging conversations with neurotypical kids: http://www.wired.com/2014/09/toytalk/
posted by zeek321 at 6:37 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


sparkletone: "What the hell? The basic gist of the story is "disabled person gets some technology that makes their life better/more enjoyable than it would be otherwise" and your reaction is "CHILLING. ALSO, I LIKE TURTLES."

Seriously?
"

Let Angerbot tell you about his mother.
posted by symbioid at 6:48 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


iPhones are Veblen goods.

Do you know what a Veblen good is? An iPhone is not one.
posted by Sokka shot first at 7:12 AM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


How dare these nouveau riche petite bourgeois one percenters enjoy the experience of discovering unexpected ways to help their disabled children.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:28 AM on October 18, 2014 [10 favorites]


you can't criticize this because the focus is on a person with developmental issues

Look at it this way: The parents of developmentally disabled kids can't talk about how certain kinds of modern technology really help their kids without random people sneering that they're just conspicuously consuming blah blah blah. You all win!

No, wait...
posted by rtha at 7:40 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


If you liked this story, you really really need to check out the various ToyTalk apps on iOS: "The Winston Show", "Speakazoo", "SpeakaLegend", and an about-to-be-released Halloween-themed app called "SpeakOrTreat". They're fabulous. Funny, kid-friendly, conversation-based gameplay that actually responds to what kids say to them. It's like Siri, but explicitly meant as entertainment, with storylines and callbacks and multiple characters. And unlike Siri, they have "fallback" lines and situations programmed in, so that if the system doesn't understand a kid's statement, the character can keep moving the conversation forward without an annoying "sorry, I did not understand that" utterance.

And yeah, they get compared to The Diamond Age (A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer) a bit.

But I might be a bit biased because my husband wrote and directed them and does several of the voices, and I'm the voice of the ladybug in Speakazoo, and we coincidentally have a six-year-old son with special needs and language issues who adores the apps.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:02 AM on October 18, 2014 [9 favorites]


And oh, do we really need to go through the Yes, iPads Have Immense Value For People With Special Needs thing again, complete with discussion of the impact of giving non-verbal or semi-verbal people AAC apps, increasing fine motor control, fixing visual processing deficits, lengthening concentration, acting as a "preferred object" to work for in an ABA session, and all that?

Because we can do that again, if you want.

Or you can pretend this is all about commercialism and consumption patterns, while those of us who actually have a horse in this race, and the professionals we work with daily, tell you that you're wrong.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:11 AM on October 18, 2014 [16 favorites]


Oh, for...

Today, if I lost a hand, I could save up for a prosthetic hand that I could actually use to pick things up. Not everyone can afford that, and that sucks, but it's also FUCKING INCREDIBLE and if you want to call it conspicuous consumption, allow me to bitchslap you with my awesome prehensile robo-hand.

This app is teaching her child to consider other peoples' feelings more often and to have more normal conversations. In Ye Olden Days this family couldn't have achieved that result without a full-time caregiver with the patience of a saint. Now a PHONE can do it. THAT'S REALLY COOL.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2014 [15 favorites]


iPhones are Veblen goods, sure. That doesn't automatically make any article that references them an advertisement

And product placements aren't necessarily advertisements either. They were going to have SOME brand of cereal in that scene anyway. Nor does something being an advertisement mean the product is bad or worthless or not even lifesaving. I'm going to need surgery and my doctor gave me a glossy brochure that answers questions about it. Is it an advertisement? An ad agency worked on it, but that could have been a coincidence.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:40 AM on October 18, 2014


the part where the principals visit an Apple Store so regularly and deliberately
My understanding is that ritual is an important aspect of comfort for many neuro-atypical people, including visiting favorite spaces repeatedly. Apple Stores are generally well-designed, colorful spaces filled with things that one of the "principals" finds soothing and connects with deeply (as illustrated in the article).

So, yeah, it's regular, and deliberate, and might just be the highlight of the kid's week.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:03 AM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't think some people really know what a Veblen good is (including, but not exclusively Mayor Curley), but here is a short summary for them to read before commenting further.

In any case, I'm having a difficult time picturing an autistic child caring about social status — if anything, their situation is defined partially by difficulty with typical social interactions.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:45 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think I know what you mean with the New York Times and Apple products, Mayor Curley. Last month there was an article in the NYT Style Section about a guy who, during a potential plane crash, "reached for his Samsung Galaxy Note 3 smartphone, thrust it into the murky air and pressed the record button." The Times entitled the article A Defining Question In The iPhone Age. It's hard not to notice an attempt to "normalize" a choice of one specific brand, and it leads one to wonder why.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:09 PM on October 18, 2014


Then … wouldn't they just have left out the "Samsung Galaxy Note 3" part? Or are only the headline writers in on the Apple conspiracy?
posted by glhaynes at 3:22 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


On second thought, I regret adding to this shitty derail. I'm sorry.
posted by glhaynes at 3:24 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I will say, as someone who has been watching technology become able to solve more and more problems over the course of my life, that not being able to afford the current state of the art can be frustrating and can be tragic. This is a part of the story not mentioned in this article, but it is important. I guess my take on this particular criticism is that it requires a different article. Same story about technology enabling children, different chapter, maybe?

The economics of solutions becoming more mainstream are not going to change much. Apple and Google are both working hard to both advance the state of the art and to bring it to the largest number of consumers possible. I believe Google is doing much more to enable mainstream access, and pushing Apple hard to keep up. Apple sits at a fascinating intersection of the state of the art and mainstream access--it's why they make so much money and part of why people care about reading Apple stories.

That the story is also marketing for the technology involved is simply... inescapable. I don't know how you can tell a story about such a novel, enabling use of technology without talking about the technology.
posted by Wilbefort at 4:22 PM on October 18, 2014


"It's hard not to notice an attempt to "normalize" a choice of one specific brand, and it leads one to wonder why."

Because the gold standard AAC apps like Proloquo2Go and SpeakForYourself, a majority of other less-feature-rich AAC apps, and a significant number of PECS apps are iOS only and don't work on Android? And some sell only Apple-specific peripherals and accessories like stands and external speakers and plastic keyguards to prevent accidental button-pushes?

But sure, let's go with product placement conspiracy theories, that's cool too.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:28 PM on October 18, 2014


Great story, and yes this technology really does represent a sea-change in interventions for children (and adults) with communication difficulties. Yes, an i-pad is more expensive than some other tablet devices. But not more expensive, and much more widely available, accessible, and usable than older "communication devices" that were specific to speech therapy. It is hardly just one-percenters engaging in conspicuous consumption. I've had numerous families who have benefited from this technology--including folks from more rural areas and folks who deliberately live pretty remotely from mainstream culture (see, for example, Hildale).

Sure, it would be great if devices were even cheaper, or more equivalent apps available on competitor devices, but until then...

http://www.myasdf.org/site/our-programs/ipad-program/

By the way, Asparagirl, those ToyTalk apps look great, and I've shared the info with folks I know!
posted by freejinn at 11:34 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I myself am not a phone person at all, but I'm really fond of some of the calming and ambient noise apps.

Oh my goodness, I have a new favorite website.
posted by painquale at 12:43 PM on October 19, 2014


Judith Newman had a piece on NPR this morning, similar to the NYT article.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:11 AM on November 4, 2014


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