Okay, I’ll admit it: When I first read Judith Newman’s New York Times op-ed called “To Siri, With Love,” I shared it everywhere. (Well, truthfully, “everywhere” for me is Facebook and Twitter.) Not only that, but everyone I know seemed to be sharing it directly with me! I was getting emails from people I hardly know with the NY Times link. Friends from my neighborhood would stop me on the street and ask if I had read it yet. Finally, there was someone else who understood, like I do, that technology and screen time plays such an important role to kids with autism! I felt an immediate kinship to Judith, even though she had no idea who I was.
I was pleased to find that Judith Newman’s book (with the same title) was just as good as the op-ed column that it came from. Newman’s honest feelings about her son’s autism and her snarky wit make this is a fast and fun read. The parts that I found most fascinating, of course, are how her son, Gus, is actually learning from touchscreen technology.
Luckily, I found a few connections to Judith Newman and we began an email correspondence. (Sometimes New York City seems like an incredibly small place.) She agreed to be interviewed for this blog. I hope you find her responses as interesting as I do!
iQ Journals: You wrote “To Siri With Love” after a NY Times piece you had written went viral. Before that, had you ever thought about writing a memoir about your son, Gus?
Judith Newman: No, never. And I wouldn’t have thought about writing this book if someone hadn’t asked me. I’m very lucky. How many people have the chance of gassing on about their family and getting paid for it?
iQJ: Just like you, I also have twins – one who is autistic and one who is neurotypical. Do your twins share anything in common, as far as technology and screen time use?
JN: They’re both a little too addicted, of course. But Henry, my neurotypical son, is unusually wary of social media for someone his age. (They’re 16 today.) He has an idea that he wants to go into politics and, as he puts it, “On the Internet, Stupid is forever.”
iQJ: Your autistic son, Gus, seems to be really into escalator videos on YouTube. My autistic son, Quentin, is really into elevator videos on YouTube. Any theories on this phenomenon?
JN: Isn’t it funny? There’s a very comforting sameness in these modes of transport; you can be pretty sure the elevator is not going to shoot off into space. In Gus’ case, too, there’s something about the pattern of the stairs that appeals to him. Just look at the stairs! They are kind of mesmerizing.
iQJ: love that Gus figured out from watching ambulance videos on YouTube that each ambulance siren has a different pitch, according to the hospital it’s associated with. What else has he learned from YouTube?
JN: I probably don’t want to know everything he’s learned on YouTube! I do know that he ping-pongs back and forth between entirely age-appropriate stuff, and his autism cornucopia: Dora the Explorer videos and YouTube videos of trains coming into stations around the world. I think he can say “Please watch your step” in about 20 different languages. On the computer itself, he has become fixated on reading the news to me — only from ABC 7 though. It has to be that channel. God knows why. But the very fact that his world has expanded enough to be interested in the news makes me happy. Though I wish he’d concentrate a bit less on car accidents, accidental beheadings, and misbehaving priests.
iQJ: Whoa! This is getting creepy because my Quentin is also in love with ABC7. I mean, our autistic children seem really different from each other, but they share some really strange interests. I always thought, for my son, that it his interest was because we watched ABC news when he was quite young, and it has a great logo and theme music. Does any of that ring true for what Gus might see?
JN: I have absolutely no idea why he focused on this one; I watch CNN and MSNBC obsessively, and Gus only likes Anderson Cooper because he was on Sesame Street. But you’re right, probably the logo or music. I wish I had a more interesting answer for you.
Appearing on Sesame Street definitely seems to be the way to an autistic child’s heart! “To Siri, With Love” can be purchased via Amazon by clicking this link.