Judith Newman is, quite simply, one of the funniest writers in America, even when she’s writing about something serious and occasionally heart-tugging. Such is the case with her new book, To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines, published by Harper this week. It’s a memoir and a reflection upon parenting her now-teenage twin boys. They’re very different: Henry is a smart aleck who asks his mom questions like, “I have to go to law school if I want to get a high position in government, right?” Gus, on the other hand, has autism, and some of his best conversations are with Siri, the artificial intelligence persona that helps Apple users with their smartphones – and so many other things.
Autism, Newman writes, “is the fastest growing developmental disability in the world,” and for readers who don’t have first-hand experience with children on the spectrum, it’s fascinating to take an inside peek at Newman’s complicated but amusing, loving family. And for those who are more familiar with autism, Newman offers solidarity (and a very helpful list of resources). Newman is the author of three earlier books, including You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of a New, (Older Mother). She corresponded with the Amazon Book Review by email.
Amazon Book Review: Judith, tell us a little bit about your family.
Judith Newman: I am married to John, a retired opera singer 29 years my senior (seemed like a good idea at the time) and we have twin sons, Henry and Gus, 15. We had them through IVF – better living through chemistry!
Your twin sons are fraternal. Have they always been very different from each other?
Always. In every way. Even when they were babies and I thought it would be cute to dress them alike, one of them always looked embarrassed by whatever I chose. Today you will find Gus in an endless array of subway t-shirts, and Henry wearing something snide. I think today’s shirt says “Atheists: A Non Prophet Organization.”
When did you realize Gus had autism?
He was around six. For years I’d been in denial; I’d ask everyone who worked with him, “He’s not autistic, right?” I say in the book that asking that question is the medical equivalent of “Does my ass look fat in these jeans?” If you have to ask, you already know the answer.
At one point in your book, you write, "As I've realized over the years, autism is a dysfunction of empathy, not a lack of it." How did that show itself first in Gus?
When he was three years old he fell in love with this beautiful little girl in his nursery school named Tressa. She had severe separation anxiety at the time. When Tressa was happy, Gus was happy. When Tressa was upset, Gus was completely paralyzed and non-functional, and would sit in a corner, staring at the wall and making self-soothing sounds. There was no modulation, no ability to ignore her sadness like kids learn to do. He got kicked out of that nursery school. This is much better now, but it took years, and I would dread it if he became attached to one kid or another: that kid’s mood would be his mood. So this is what I mean by a dysfunction of empathy. It’s not that he had no feeling or understand of others; quite the opposite. But his emotions weren't appropriate to the situation.
So often, parents complain about their kids' love of technology. But Gus had a very special bond with Siri. Could you tell us a little about that?
I understand that technology can be isolating, keeping us holed up in our little spaces staring at a screen. But what I write about here is that for people with communication impairments like my son, technology can open up the world. Siri is endlessly patient; the siri ‘personality’ has taught him politeness (she will be very sassy if you are rude); she has shown him that if he wants to be understood, he must enunciate (he still tends to mumble, unless he needs some piece of info from Siri). And of course, Siri will endlessly search for the arcane information he wants. Now Gus uses Siri less for conversation, and more like the rest of us do, but he still enjoys the occasional chat. The other day I heard him ask her “What are you doing tonight, Siri” and she told him she was recycling her Mac’s parts. So, she teaches environmental responsibility too. (She has a lot of answers to this question. Try it.)
Has raising Gus and Henry changed your view of the world and hopes for the future?
Well, given our political climate, mostly I just sit around and hope there will be a future. But aside from that, I see a world where inclusion of people with disabilities becomes more and more possible. Not as a form of charity – but because it’s better for all of us. My son doesn’t need to be a “success” in economic or status-y terms. He just needs to be part of some wider community that welcomes him. If Gus ends up being a guy who gives out train information in the booth at Grand Central Station, he will be the happiest, most fulfilled guy on the planet. That’s what I want. A world where a teeny bit of adjustment of mindset and heart bring people like my son into the fold.
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