It’s breaktime at school, and I am sat at my desk in my classroom when a boy appears in the doorway. It is Michael. Michael is a boy in Year Nine who often comes to visit me at breaktimes, particularly if the Head of ICT is busy. Michael has Aspergers, amongst other global issues and often seeks out the company of adults in his (and their) free time. He is a boy who is fondly thought of by the staff. I think it’s a mixture of sympathy and admiration for a child who struggles so much with day to day life but is relentless and unflappable and always smiling.
Before he opens his mouth, I know what is coming next. Michael and I have the same, almost scripted conversation on almost a daily basis. His speech is so obviously thought out, planned and pre-meditated that it completely exposes his difficulty with spontaneous speech and small talk. He has learnt these lines, as if he has been programmed to command their use when the right variables are in place.
This is quite appropriate really, as his conversation will be exclusively about computers. My room doubles as a computer room, for use with some of the courses I teach. Not that I am any sort of expert on the finer points of Information Communication Technology. I know enough to get by, but possibly not enough to handle Michael’s questions.
“Does Motion 5 have key framing and chroma key?” he asks me.
I have no idea what he is talking about.
“Good question.” I reply. “I’m not sure. You know who will know? The Head of ICT.” This answer is lame, transparent and makes no impact on Michael’s unrelenting line of inquiry.
What follows is a very awkward, stilted conversation in which I try to steer Michael away from a monologue about computers and Motion 5, whatever that is. I do not begrudge Michael’s visits in the slightest, but they do make me uncomfortable sometimes. His inability to realise I’m having a break is amusing rather than annoying (I guess I’m fair game if I’m in my room- he wouldn’t come looking for me in the staffroom), but his visits do trouble me. Can you guess why?
There are two reasons. The first is that I wish Michael had friends he could spend his breaktime with. But he does not. Michael roams from one member of staff to another, presumably with the same rote questions and conversation each time. I feel sorry for Michael, and feeling sorry for him makes me feel bad about myself.
The second reason is more significant. Every time Michael visits me I am left with one over-riding thought: am I looking at my son in six year’s time? Will he be Michael?
It’s almost a cliché isn’t it? We’re all familiar with this child. The ‘odd’ kid who is obsessed by computers. He has few friends (except for fellow geeks). He is socially awkward. The other kids pick on him. He has Aspergers. In some cases he grows up to be Bill Gates. In most cases life will not be quite so successful. I wonder if this is where B is heading.
Like Michael, my son has a passionate, consuming interest in computers and always has. It extends to most screen based gadgets and gizmos. Being the indulgent parents that we are, our boys have an array of these electricity gobbling devices: the Wii, Kindle, laptop, video camera, four bloody Nintendo DSs (no idea how this happened). Left to their own devices, they would both spend all their time on them. We let them play far too much on them, but not all of the time.
What am I so worried about? Every day the benefits of newly developed technology for children on the spectrum is reported. There are some excellent apps that are being used to develop understanding and communication skills. But as a child with high functioning autism, who is verbal, I worry that the opposite is happening. When B is immersed in gaming, he is not developing social and communication skills. To my knowledge, there are no apps that teach you how to stop playing and go and make friends.
My son’s relationship with all things computer-related is a long-standing one. When he should have been making eye-contact, he was making my phone bleep. When the children at his nursery were playing together, he was re-configuring the computer desktop. When he should have been developing speech, he was developing an understanding of how to change the language on the Wii to Sanskrit.
Lately, my son’s obsession has increased, probably around the time his beloved Kindle Fire entered his life. I am concerned that, like Michael, these things will become his whole life. My eldest son, for all the hours he clocks up on gadgets, can switch off from them and go play. But B seems to be increasingly infatuated with them. There have been many meltdowns and tantrums when we have tried to impose some sort of time out from them. Like a junkie, my child could not face withdrawal from his addiction.
From the moment he awoke this morning, my son has talked of nothing but ‘Cut the Rope’, ‘Fruit Ninja’ and ‘Temple Run’. I’ve heard of nothing but levels, coins, Armakillos (me neither) and end of level bosses. This is a worrying development; when he’s not playing them, he’s thinking about them. He’s even started re-enacting moments from games. This has resulted in a grazed nose and several attempts to run into the road this week (to make it worse, a friend has been doing the school run with him). The boundaries between reality and fantasy seem to have become blurred, and that’s worrying.
I recently declared to my family that we were to have a gadget free weekend. We were to go cold turkey; no devices of any sort would be allowed. I got the same look I’d get if I’d just suggested we go and drown some kittens. And that was just my wife. I still think it’s a good idea. One day…
I wrote last week of the guilt I feel in indulging my son’s computer addiction. Having an older brother, he was probably exposed to these things at far too early an age. Thinking about it, his brother probably wasn’t much older! I know we’re not alone though- video games and computers are very much a part of children’s lives from an early age now. Perhaps I’m feeling the generation gap- I am 40 this year, and didn’t really engage with computers until I was about 20. I’m not an ‘adult gamer’ (although I know this is also quite common) and don’t spend my spare time on a console. I’m too busy hogging the laptop for that.
Why is my son so drawn to computers, I.T. and gaming? Is it something to do with the way his brain is hard-wired? Temple Grandin says, “My mind is a web browser” and is not alone in drawing parallels between the inner workings and behaviour of the autistic mind and the way a computer works. Clearly Temple knows her own mind, but I think it’s a rather convenient analogy for a neuro-typical person to make. Too easy. Not to mention possibly insulting. Is my son’s difficulty with social interaction caused by a rather cold, computer-like configuration of his mind?
No. When my son ran to the computer, aged three, it was because he was overwhelmed by the boisterous, unpredictable children. He could not make them respond in the way he wanted, but he was in control of the computer. Gadgets such as these provide satisfying responses, instant gratification and a feeling of control. My son was totally drawn to buttons, touch screens, switches and clicks. If it didn’t do anything, then what use was of it to him? No wonder those action figures were unplayed with. They didn’t do anything! But his mum’s phone…
The news today featured the story of the five-year-old child who had run up a charge of £1700 on his dad’s iPad (making in-game purchases). We don’t own an iPad (I can’t justify the purchase of something that would be of greater value than the car I drive) but we are vulnerable to such an event, given B’s track record. In fact, and I didn’t know this until we watched the news tonight, B once purchased two games on his mum’s phone without her knowledge. He also sent the message “%k~##” to several of her friends while he had his hand on it. I rather anxiously double checked the ‘parental controls’ setting on the Kindle after hearing that. I’m safe, as long as my password remains a secret!
There are of course many positive elements to my son’s interest. Despite my negative tone at the start of this blog, where would we be without the Michael’s of this world to become our IT experts of the future (being on the spectrum is, of course, not a requirement for working in IT. Please don’t send me hate mail)? My son has fantastic, advanced skills in using PowerPoint and can navigate programs like Word and Internet Explorer very well too. Many of the games he plays involve problem-solving skills and his hand to eye co-ordination and fine motor skills are clearly getting a work out too.
The way he is consuming these games is developing too. Once it was all about changing settings and making something- anything- happen. Now, he actually plays the games and uses the programs for a purpose. The boys have also developed a sweet, side-by-side routine of playing the same games together.
A very sweet moment occurred recently when B was playing a game called ‘Stickman’ on his brother’s Kindle. The game invited him to ‘Tell his friends’ he was playing, and in return two bonus levels would be unlocked. Of course, by ‘tell your friends’ it meant tell your followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook (B may be very IT savvy but he does not yet have a Twitter or Facebook account). B did not understand this social networking feature, so instead he came to me, sat on my knee, and (at length) began to describe the game he was playing. When he was done, he said, “Now I can have two bonus levels”.
It is an honour to be counted among his friends.
I am not afraid of Michael, and I am not afraid of my son becoming Michael, if that’s where his future lies. Like many asd children I work with, Michael is a good kid. My son’s obsession with computers may one day open many doors for him (or should that be Windows?) and, if that makes him a computer geek, then so be it. Like most parents, I will need to monitor and manage my son’s usage.
I made a resolution at the start of the year to try to think the way my son thinks- to stop imposing my brains way of computing and to learn to read his instead. With this in mind, his bedtime stories this week have all been about games on his Kindle. He adores this and his smile has been a mile wide. He joins in, adding details I may have missed out, like Armakillos.
So now, he’s probably dreaming of computing too, but we’re connecting. Perhaps these gadgets are the secret to social communication after all.