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For most Apple users, Siri is a useful, occasionally annoying (and sometimes slightly unnerving) part of our lives. She’s cleverly programmed, and fun to tease with certain questions, but isn’t much more than a well-designed shortcut to fill our calendars and scan Google.

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For one family, however, Apple’s little assistant has become a crucial bridge between their child and the outside world. Author Judith Newman’s son Gus has autism, and Newman has written about the struggles of parenting him. Siri has been an unexpected lifeline for Gus. Siri has the benefit of mimicking gentle human responses and infinite patience, and “could endlessly answer his questions, keep her son company and express—in that flat, sweet Siri voice—the gift of common courtesy.”

The American Library Association has recognized the potential to reach children with autism using apps for years. One of the challenging aspects about working with autism is that it exists along a spectrum, and every child has different challenges. In terms of relationships, children with autism may struggle with “social-interaction, communication, and behavioral skills.”

As there are a range of challenges with autism, there are a range of apps to tackle them. There are apps that “work on social skills (such as Look in My Eyes Restaurant from FizzBrain), apps that support the development of daily living skills (one is Sequences for Autism from Club LIA), and ones that target speech and language issues (such as ConversationBuilder from the Mobile Education Store).”

For any worried that apps would be isolating in nature, apps do not need to be as robust or as complicated as Siri to facilitate better social experiences. For example, the ALA points out that children with autism can sometimes struggle with the feeling of paint or glue on their fingers, and apps that allow them to draw on a screen let them participate in art-related activities in group settings.

Having iPads loaded with Apps, or app-friendly activities in a public space, can be encouraging to both children and their parents, “and send the very important message that these families are welcome in your library and that you are open to finding ways to serve them and meet their needs.”

As much as we malign technology, and condemn it for its inability to live up to human instincts and connection, the balance between the two works surprisingly well when helping children with special needs.

“That’s the wonderful thing about technology being able to help with some of these behaviors,” explained William Mark, President of SRI International. “Getting results requires a lot of repetition. Humans are not patient. Machines are very, very patient.”


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American Libraries, Vol. 44, No. 6 (JUNE 2013), pp. 36-39
American Library Association