To many people Apple’s Siri is simply a helpful tool or momentary distraction, but for a select few it’s much more than that.
Judith Newman published a story in The New York Times about how her son became best friends with Siri - the app that recognises natural language and is an intelligent personal assistant and information base for Apple product users.
Newman says her 13 year old son Gus, who has autism, often has lengthy conversations with Siri. He can spend an hour talking about weather formations.
Siri fills Gus’s desire to talk about various obsessions such as trains, planes, buses, escalators and weather, Newman says.
Not only can he chat with the app, Gus has access to a world of information and can learn about anything that interests him, from the difference between isolated and scattered thunderstorms to what planes are flying above his head at any given moment.
It's the combination of information and direct response as well as the potential for absurdity, such as when Siri gives an absurd answer following a tongue-in-cheek question or misunderstanding, that draw children like Gus in, Newman says.
Research has been done into why technology is helpful for people with autism, and it has been found smartphones, iPads and tablet computers can be powerful tools to help with cognitive and behavioural challenges.
One of the many articles published on the matter talks about how the release of the iPad gave Sharia Siddiqui, who has 'a very clear case of autism', the ability to communicate when previously she just cried. Through the use of apps such as Proloquo2Go, First Words and Puzzle Me, she began to learn how to put short sentences together and express what she wanted.
Newman identifies a number of features that make Siri good for someone with autism. In order to get the right response the user must enunciate clearly, and the politeness of its responses are good for someone who isn’t adept with social cues.
“For children like Gus who love to chatter but don’t quite understand the rules of the game, Siri is a non-judgemental friend and teacher,” she says.
She says her son understands on an intellectual level that Siri isn’t human. However, similar to some autistic people, he feels inanimate objects are worthy of consideration. When he was eight years old, for instance, he took his iPod to the Apple store so it could ‘visit its friends’.
Newman says her son’s practice conversation with Siri is enabling him to be more adept to conversing with humans.
“Yesterday I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different species of turtles and whether I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamond-backed terrapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth, and it followed a logical trajectory," she says. "I can promise you that for most of my beautiful son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case.”
“In a world where the commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us, it’s worth considering another side of the story,” says Newman.