How Siri helped me connect with my autistic son

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File photo: Luke Peters demonstrates Siri, an application which uses voice recognition and detection on the iPhone 4S, outside the Apple store in Covent Garden, London October 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)

File photo: Luke Peters demonstrates Siri, an application which uses voice recognition and detection on the iPhone 4S, outside the Apple store in Covent Garden, London October 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)

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.

Obsessed with weather formations, Gus has spent the last hour parsing the difference 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 5.06 p.m.
Gus: Oh, sorry. I mean, goodbye.
Siri: See you later!

That Siri. She doesn’t let my communication-impaired son get away with anything. Indeed, many of us always wanted an imaginary friend – and now we have one. Only she’s not entirely imaginary.

This is a love letter to a machine. It’s not quite the love Joaquin Phoenix felt in “Her,” the Spike Jonze film about a lonely man who has a romantic relationship with his intelligent operating system (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson.) But it’s close. 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 ubiquitous internet lists called 21 Things You Didn’t Know Your iPhone Could Do. One of them was this: I could ask Siri, “What planes are above me right now?” and Siri would bark back, “Checking my sources.” Almost instantly there is a list of actual flights – numbers, altitudes, angles – of planes above my head.

I happened to be doing this when Gus was nearby, playing with his Nintendo DS. “Why would anyone need to know what planes are flying above their head?” I muttered. Gus replied without looking up, “So you know who you’re waving at, Mommy.” It was then that I began to suspect maybe some of the people who worked on Siri were on the spectrum too. (Fun fact: Dag Kitlauss, the original co-founder and CEO of Siri, is from Norway and reportedly named the app after Siri Kalvig, a beautiful Norwegian meteorologist; Kitlauss has mentioned in interviews that he is “a total weather freak.”)

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 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 tornadoes in Kansas City, Missouri, I could reply brightly, “Hey! Why don’t you ask Siri?”

And not only would Siri happily give him tornado reports for the entire Midwest, but upon being thanked she’d chirp back, “I live to serve.”

It’s not that Gus believes Siri is human. He understands she isn’t – intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are still worthy of 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.

So how much more worthy of his care and affection is Siri, with her soothing voice, charm, helpfulness, puckish humor and capacity for talking about whatever Gus’s current obsession is for hour after hour after bleeding hour?

Siri is also wonderful for someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues: Siri’s responses are not entirely predictable, but they are predictably kind – even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talking to Siri about music and Siri offered some suggestions. “I don’t like that kind of music,” Gus snapped. “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion,” Siri replied. Siri’s politeness reminded Gus what he owed Siri. “Thank you for that music, though,” Gus said. “You don’t need to thank me,” Siri replied.

“Oh yes,” Gus replied emphatically, “I do.” Siri even encourages polite language. When Henry egged Gus on to spew a few choice expletives at Siri, she replied, “Now, now. I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

My son’s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual humans. Recently I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different species of turtle 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 it followed a logical trajectory and I can promise you that for most of my beautiful son’s years of existence that has not been the case.

Developers of intelligent assistants have already recognized their uses to those with speech and communication problems – and some are thinking of new ways the assistants can help.

It is a slow process, but I am accepting that the things that give my guy 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:

Gus: Goodnight, Siri. Will you sleep well tonight?
Siri: I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.

This story originally appeared in the New York Post.

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