Autism and new technologies – or why I broke Uber and Minecraft surprised me

I recently had a bad experience with an Uber (ride share company) driver. My mental health had been misbehaving so I was stressed and a bit confused and I was in a different city. The driver didn’t turn up. He called me and I told him where I was and then still didn’t turn up. Rather than cancelling the ride I just got in a nearby cab – it was all very stressful and I forgot the sequence of how this stuff is meant to work. Cue irate Uber driver no doubt giving me a very poor rating. I imagine that I am far form the first autistic person – or just stressed and slightly confused person – to fall afoul of the ratings system on Uber!

This experience got me to thinking about new technologies and autism more broadly.

I’ll start with the positives. In my own experience social media is mostly a very positive thing. I meet so many like-minded people and have made genuine friends all over the world. There are several autistic-run groups which I spend a lot of my time in and many members of my online family are good friends. I look forward to spending time in social media land. 

Almost all my advocacy work is done online –  my daily meme and blog posts and promoting events. I know that I am far form alone in this as many other autistic people have similar online experiences. And I must add that cat videos are the best de-stress tools ever short of actually cuddling Mr Kitty. So when somebody sends me a video of a cat doing something adorable and funny it makes me feel amazing. 

Short of connecting online with others, the technology currently available for writing and making art – and daily memes – is amazing.  I was using video software in the early 2000s and the difference is off the chart. This means people can get their message out without too much fuss and stress from the tech! 

Another plus of current technology is the amount of fandoms people can get involved in and the depth of information about the worlds of those fandoms – just look at Pottermore….and Harry Potter fanfic for that matter. If your passionate interest is Harry Potter – or many other fandoms – there is almost endless information out there. And I know how joyful it is engaging with passionate interests.

So that is a selection of lovely positive things. There are some things which are more problematic, including trolling and predatory behaviour. Some issues around tech can be contentious. Screen time and kids is definitely a contentious issue. I have spoken to many parents of autistic kids who swear by devices for a range of things. I have also met kids who have a bona fide screen addiction that is stopping them from going to school or even sleeping. 

People often think the screen time itself is the problem but I take  a different view. A device offers kids a lot of things – some good some potentially damaging. Screen time is immersive, immensely enjoyable and mostly predictable. The experience of using a device for gaming or design or other things tends it be something really enjoyable and not inherently damaging at all. Many kids are quite OK using the screen without it being an issue and others aren’t. Why? I think the key word in ‘screen addiction’ is the second word – ‘addiction.’ ‘

I used to be an alcoholic many years ago. I needed to have alcohol in the house and I couldn’t go for long without having a drink…and then many more. Alcohol was part of almost all my socialising. These days I often have one cider or one glass of wine with dinner. It is rare indeed for me to have more than two glasses in one day. I don’t mind if I have a night without any alcohol at all – or a week for that matter. So was the alcohol the problem the I was younger? No. 

The alcohol was the vehicle for the problem. Addiction is something which people who are having a tough time use to get through it. It is not a very helpful way of addressing the issue but – while the addict has their substance of choice – be that drugs, wine or an iPad  – the ‘hole’ which results in addiction is temporarily filled. The problem with addiction is as much the reason the person has an addiction as the ‘substance’ involved. This is why not everyone who drinks wine has an issue with it and why not every kid who picks up a device has an issue with it either. Screen addition – like other addictions – can be in response to things which have nothing to do with Minecraft of Fortnite. Addressing addiction in my experience needs to be as much about addressing  the causes – the need for whatever substance – as the addictive behaviour. Happy, well-adjusted people do not generally become addicts. 

I do struggle a bit when people assume something new or recent is bad seemingly simply because it exists. When I was a kid in the early 1980s people were complaining about the damage videos were doing on young people! Technology can be met with mistrust by some but I don’t see it like that. I think for autistic people technologies can be liberating and extremely positive and open up new worlds. However, as there is potential for kids and young people to fill the ‘hole’ in their life (if they have one) with excessive screen time, I think it definitely needs to be closely monitored by parents. As I imagine most people know, there are also predators and trolls in the online universe who can take advantage of autistic people – kids and adults – so care is required. Cyber-safety and self-protection online are important things for everyone to be aware of.

I will finish with a story. I love a good story! I was visiting a friend who has three young autistic kids. The littlest one came and sat next to me and asked me if I wanted to see the cats he had designed on Minecraft. I said yes – how wonderful! I hadn’t really seen anyone using Minecraft in real time before, only the end results. This very small child sat there and designed from nothing in 3D space these incredible cats. Each one took him about three minutes to construct. The command of the technology was exceptional and I could see all sorts of transferable uses for the skills he was demonstrating. This kid actually changed my view that something I had rarely heard described positively by adults – Minecraft – could be such an educative thing. I guess another case of ‘don’t assume – ask!’


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