December 8, 2008

"Are computers and the Internet making people a little bit autistic?"

Asks John Elder Robison (who himself has Asperger's syndrome):
Autistic people are set apart because we don't get the emotional signals from others to trigger the response and learning process. Therefore, even though we can learn many social interactions, they don't come naturally to us. And we're always awkward because we're blind to the triggers that are automatic in neurotypical people.

I submit that something similar is happening with America's youth, for a different reason.

Today's kids spend more and more time in front of computers, and more and more of their communication is electronic. For every minute spent in front of a computer, a minute interacting with other people face to face is lost. As a result, today's kids are not learning the fine points of nonverbal interaction. They don't interact in person enough to acquire the skills....

As a person with Asperger's, I have always had great success when communicating by writing, because my limited ability to respond to nonverbal cues does not matter in the written domain. You readers can't see my face . . . you only read my words. I'm grateful that I have the gift of writing in a clear and articulate manner. It's given me communication success that I could never have enjoyed otherwise.

But to me, written interaction is not enough. In my last blog post, I wrote of my sense of aloneness, and my desire to join the community of mankind. To me, that is only done in person. I assumed (perhaps wrongly) that everyone felt that way, but now I'm not sure . . .
Here's that last blog post:
For much of my life, I've carried a burden of sadness....

But I also know I am part of the community of humans, and therein lies the problem.... I cannot sense another person's joy or acceptance. Instead, I must deduce those feelings from careful observation....

Yet I want to know them. I want to be part of human society....
He must wonder why people who are not autistic distance themselves from the physical presence of other human beings by using writing -- even as they reach out to each other through the internet. One thing is that we see and experience so much feeling when we look each other in the face that we need the alternative of written communication to sort out what we really think and believe and care about. When you are in a group, you tend to go along with the group, to laugh at their jokes, to accept what they accept and to be outraged at what outrages them. You can lose track of whether you are trying to be pleasant and have a good experience or whether you really do mirror your friends and colleagues. The time spent in solitary thought and writing is tremendously important.

Robinson -- who is the brother of the writer Augusten Burroughs -- has written a good book about his condition called "Look Me in the Eye." There's a video clip at that link with Burroughs interviewing Robinson.

25 comments:

TMink said...

What wonderful writing about Asperger's. While I accept his point to a point, I think that pre-computer socialization for neurotypical children is extremely powerful and likely sufficient in terms of learning and practicing emotional recognizion and interaction.

And part of the difficulty is that no amount of normal and typical interaction will help with Asperger's. The best interventions I have found occur once the children or adults have figured out that something is different about them. Once they have developed some higher reasoning skills, they can think their way through emotions with enough practice.

But thanks for the tip, I have to get his book.

Trey

Tibore said...

They said the same thing about TV and radio before that: That its nature would irreparably damage human interaction. Well, humans adjust. Just because a major component of the dominant paradigm changes doesn't necessarily mean that humans lose interactivity skills. They can simply morph too.

That said, my personal pet peeve is the erosion of spelling skills due to the internet. :) Blech!!!...

John Lynch said...

With autism it's not a natural learning process to fit in. It's like constantly missing half the things people are saying. Life is hard when you take everything literally.

Adjusting an autistic outlook to the world is like learning a new language as an adult. It's possible, but most people don't do it.

As for the internet, the loss of most social cues leads to a lot of rudeness. A lot of it is unintentional. Mostly people get used to it.

rhhardin said...

One thing is that we see and experience so much feeling when we look each other in the face that we need the alternative of written communication to sort out what we really think and believe and care about. When you are in a group, you tend to go along with the group, to laugh at their jokes, to accept what they accept and to be outraged at what outrages them.

That rings as typically female to me.

William said...

Is it possible Asperger's syndrome is an evolutionary leap. They say Bach was autistic. Any definition of human development that defines him as deficient is itself deficient....It would be nice to have a drug that gives one transient Asperger's for finalizing the divorce or going to the funeral or whatever. Sadness and loss are much more common emotions than love and joy. There is a part of me that envies people with Asperger's.

Meade said...

rhhardin said...
"That rings as typically female to me."

That rings to me as typically autistically male to point that out.

John Lynch said...

I've wondered if Asperger's is evolutionary. Think about it-- how hard would someone with Asperger's have had it before mass literacy? Since it comes with poor visual IQ and general clumsiness, anyone who had it before 1600 or so would have had a bad time.

John Lynch said...

Oh, and emotions are just as strong with Asperger's. You're not a robot. It's just sensing other people's that are the problem, and expressing the wrong emotion at the wrong time.

It's an obsessive kind of disorder. If you lose something or someone you really like, I'd argue that it's much worse than it is for most people.

junyo said...

It reminds me of Asimov's Spacers, who's communications technology advances eventually make them averse to person to person contact, eventually destroying the species.

I personally put a lot of stock in the theory of technology based autism. Sarcasm works extremely poorly or the internet, without the subtle nonverbal clues. The technology allows the communication of a certain amount of data, but not nearly all of the data that a verbal communication consists of, and humans are primarily verbal when it comes to the transfer of ideas (as opposed to information). Emoticons and smilies compensate to a degree, but human communication is pretty inefficient to begin with, removing elements would tend to insure that the quality of that communication would go down. I also think the coarsening of political discourse is mostly a part of that phenomenon, as without the restraints of politeness, proximity or social bonding, people tend to take poorly worded statements at their worse possible value and respond in kind.

Joe said...

I think he has cause and effect backward.

RE: Asperger's. My wife and I were convinced my youngest son had mild-Asperger's. Last year the school psychologist tested him (I thought it would a token test, but the psychologist did a very thorough job and wrote a very insightful report); the conclusion was that my son didn't have Asperger's but did share some traits with those that did. Given my son's behavior, I've concluded that many people who claim to have Asperger's or have a child/friend who does likely don't. My mother has a friend with a son with honest-to-God Asperger's and the behavior of that man is very extreme compared to my son. There is nothing to envy with someone who truly and fully suffers from this.

Audities said...

Here's the definitive research paper concerning television & autism (citation via Michael Phillips):

paper (abstract & free full download):
-------
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=989648

citation:
-------http://phillips.blogs.com/goc/2008/11/autism-and-tv.html

al said...

My daughter lives with Aspergers. Like Autism it affects those who live with it differently. One of my wife's coworkers has a kid with Aspergers and, while the two kids have some similar traits, their behaviors are very different. We've been as upfront as possible in dealing with out daughter in explaining that she is different and that some people will have problems with her. Others will accept her just the way she is.

The social interaction issue is huge for a teenage girl who wants to be "normal". My daughter is involved in Bible study, youth group, mission trips, choir, etc. She works hard at trying to fit in but rarely does for reasons explained in other posts. Face to face conversation for her is difficult. Email, myspace, texting, etc, has opened up her communication channels and allowed her to 'meet' and interact with people she never would have been able to hold a conversation with.

paul a'barge said...

I cannot sense another person's joy or acceptance.

Yeah, that sucks ... right up until you realize that probably he can't sense another person's suffering either.

Then you realize that somehow, this guy hit the Zen detachment Lottery.

knox said...

I've only known one person that I actually knew had it. He was only nine, but was very into "I'm smarter than everyone." Certainly that attitude is prevalent on the internet.

RightGirl said...

Just the other day I made an off-hand comment about how everyone and their donkey was getting diagnosed with Autism. I was smacked down royally for daring to speak out in a group of people who all seemed to have these socially inept children. Hooey! All this me-first designer suburban disease crapola (see lactose intolerance or peanut allergies for other instances) mean that people who REALLY suffer from social detachment issues are being lumped in with angst-ridden teens and anti-social curmudgeons (of which I am one).

People need to stop looking for victim status for every little thing and get on with life, already! Leave the labels for the people who are truly afflicted. Don't the rest of us have better things to do than subscribe to social hypochondria?

RG

Michael E. Lopez said...

This trend of which he speaks may have something to do with the fact that we have made huge swaths of "typical" in-person interactions either criminal, forbidden (to children), or subject to large civil liability.

rhhardin said...

For much of my life, I've carried a burden of sadness....

But I also know I am part of the community of humans, and therein lies the problem.... I cannot sense another person's joy or acceptance. Instead, I must deduce those feelings from careful observation....


Compare Rilke Duino Elegy VIII

..And yet in the warm waking creature
is the care and burden of a great sadness.
Since it too always has within it what often
overwhelms us – a memory,
as if what one is pursuing now was once
nearer, truer, and joined to us
with infinite tenderness. Here all is distance,
there it was breath. Compared to that first home
the second one seems ambiguous and uncertain..

rhhardin said...

There's an amusing scene by Stanley Cavell, on the philosophical problem ``how do I know what he's feeling,'' here. (``Imagine that you stand up late one night..'')

rhhardin said...

(con't) the link for some reason names some other book, but the text is from Cavell's _The Claim of Reason_.

rhhardin said...

Or, since the internet is messages, and angels are messengers, there's the alternate version of Rilke's tenth Duino Elegy

...That is how, always, you lost:
never as one who possesses, but like someone dying
who, bending into the moist breeze of an evening in March,
loses the springtime, alas, in the throats of the birds.

Far too much you belong to grief. If you could forget her--
even the least of these figures so infinitely pained--
you would call down, shout down, hoping they might still be curious,
one of the angels (those beings unmighty in grief)
who, as his face darkened, would try again and again
to describe the way you kept sobbing, long ago, for her.
Angel, what was it like? And he would imitate you and never
understand that it was pain, as after a calling bird
one tries to repeat the innocent voice it is filled with.

halojones-fan said...

Autstic? No.

Lazy? Yes.

It's easy, these days, to avoid making the effort to be personable or reasonable, or to actually engage with the person talking to you. It's just this thing, y'see, it's not that I'm a prick. I've just got this CONDITION.

It's like these 450-pound landwhales who snork down two dozen donuts and a bucket of KFC over the course of a day and blame it on their thyroid gland.

blake said...

Lack of awareness is not Zen.

zen said...

oh yes; naturally, the ability to recognize and understand social cues is clearly linked to the amount of time a person spends in front of the computer, or the television, or the radio, or eating food that has been microwaved, etc, etc, etc.

not that the science isn't entirely plausible, as the internet has been shown to alter the processes of the brain so much that they become functionally atypical - in the ways that matter to autistic individuals.

did that sentence not make sense? no worries; neither did any of yours.

perhaps we are both misunderstanding where the other is coming from. i too am Autistic, so i may be approaching this all wrong, but i seem to recall that Autism is more than just a difficulty with certain aspects of socialization.

further: as Tibore said, further along the thread, "humans adjust. Just because a major component of the dominant paradigm changes doesn't necessarily mean that humans lose interactivity skills. They can simply morph too."

even if increased use of the internet were to affect the ability of children to use non-verbal communication cues in the ways they had before, there would simply be adaptation.

i consider the entire scenario highly unlikely though: unless the internet is expected to replace human interaction altogether, there would be no need to worry. children attend school, they have friends, they have families. interaction would not cease.

even if there were fewer opportunities for children to socialize because they spent every moment online, they would still be socializing. the environment may change, but Neurotypicals are still inherently able to comprehend all of the social cues their culture teaches in subtext, while Autistics are not.

zen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
idiotgrrl said...

I disagree that an autistic person would have had a hard time in the Middle Ages. How many ended up in the monastic life?