My sister has been trying to convince me for years to write a blog. She believes that I have insight and that I articulate myself well in writing. “Yeah…” I would mumble passively. “Seriously!” She would exclaim. “You should!” Followed by “*reasons why I should blog that I don’t remember because I zoned out one sentence in*.” It has taken me a long time to understand WHY she thought it would be a good idea. She gave me reasons, yes. But nothing ever clicked. Nothing ever made sense to me that was the catalyst that rocketed me into action, until today.
I got a call from her about her son, who is on the ASD spectrum. Sis told me that her son had been disobeying the teacher in class, and had gotten into trouble, which in turn made him very upset. Sis asked me if I thought son’s punishment for the days when he is disobedient at school should be “no technology”.
No technology? No iPad, no YouTube, no Playstation, no Xbox, no computer. For an ASD child who’s Special Interest is technology and gaming. This would tantamount to torture!
I explained to my Sis that “technology” should not be a blanket term. Technology is not limited to one thing. Technology is all around us – what kind of technology do you want to limit? For an autistic child, if you say “No technology” that has to mean everything – Television, iPad, phone, the works. But is no technology an option, given our lives are filled with technology? It is how many of us communicate, research, learn, shop, relax, entertain ourselves. Is limiting access viable or even fair? Where is the line?
We are a technological society. For my sister and many of her generation, technology is unfortunately a bit of a scary term. She is always recounting studies and articles shared on her Facebook page of the so called negative impacts of technology on children, and she is constantly worrying about how much is too much. I tell her to stop worrying and reading extreme articles using dubious studies and scare tactics and realise it’s not TECHNOLOGY that is some bogeyman – it is what TYPE of technology your child is exposed to that can either be positive or negative. Limiting her son’s use of all technology as a method of controlling behaviour is fine, if it works, why not? But what if he needs access to the Internet to complete a school project? What if he uses a specific math app on his iPad to help him complete his homework? And, most specifically in relation to children on the ASD spectrum – what if technology is his Special Interest and he uses it to calm down and refocus?
As soon as she asked whether she should limit her son’s use of technology, as an Autistic I said no. For me, technology is what I live and breathe. It’s my relaxing reading on my Kindle on the couch. It’s browsing Reddit on my iPhone while I’m bored. It’s playing video games as entertainment. It’s searching recipes for ideas on what to cook, and ordering my groceries online. Without a working internet connection, I feel lost. I crave that connection to information. It’s my relaxation, my rejuvenation, as well as my downtime. Taking that away would be torturous for me. My nephew is like me, technology and gaming is his Special Interest, and like most people on the Autism spectrum, our Special Interest is our passion, our entertainment, our outlet. Taking that away as a whole feels unnecessarily extreme to me. It’s like telling someone they can’t go read in a quiet corner, or have a rest on the couch after a long day. My sister, the neurotypical, did not understand the connection her son and I have to technology and how it helps us with our Autism.
So instead, I suggested to her thinking about the TYPES of technology she could restrict his access to in order to encourage good behaviour. I know my nephew plays a lot of “twitch shooters”, the play style of which could aggravate his ASD, stress him out and cause sensory overload. “Twitch games” are games where you have to instantly react to things, it’s all about quick reflexes and instinct. Playing those games for someone on the spectrum is intense – your fight or flight response is constantly engaged, your adrenaline is pumping, at any time an enemy player can jump out at you and shoot you dead. You might not even see them – suddenly there’s bullets and in an instant – you’re dead. I personally try to avoid long exposure to these kind of games because it is very hard on my system. I get anxious, angry, prone to outbursts of emotion and get very tired from the constant strain on my system. I explained to my sister that if my nephew is spending a lot of his down time playing these kind of games, he might get aggravated, angry, violent, frustrated, and stressed. Whilst he enjoys it, that kind of exposure in long stretches is not good for his Autism or him (or anyone around him!). I gave the example of a shooting game he plays, and compared it to a gentle building game with soft music like Minecraft. I told her that perhaps she should classify his games and the different apps and technology he uses into categories – Low Stress, Medium Stress, High Stress – and limit his exposure accordingly. I told her that based on my own experiences and behaviour, she may find that his meltdowns are reduced and his concentration and mood improves. While playing a gentle, Low Stress game, an autistic individual like myself or my nephew will relax and unwind and it will help refocus us and prepare us for more required social or educational activity. I told her that perhaps use the High Stress games as a reward – ie when he behaves, he gets to play Call of Duty, but only for 20 minutes – half an hour. When he misbehaves – no Call of Duty. He has to play something else. This will give the double pronged effect of calming him down (as he has been misbehaving – he may already be overloaded and playing something calming will help him relax) and being a reward system.
My sister was grateful for the advice and my offer to help her organise her son’s games into Low Stress, Medium Stress and High Stress categories and once again brought up her idea of me writing a blog and for the first time, I agreed. It surprised me that my sister didn’t understand why technology was so important, and that she did not think like me. Not being able to think from another person’s perspective is a problem of mine, I just assume that everyone thinks like I do and understands things like I do. Today I realised that maybe I do have something valuable to contribute – an insight into the Autistic mind – and that I may be able to help parents, siblings, partners, carers, friends and even people on the spectrum themselves to better understand Everyday Autism.