M. Kelter


MIT researchers recently announced that they are developing a wrist watch which analyzes a conversation, then provides feedback about the emotional content of the discussion. Though the watch is still early in development, MIT’s press for the device suggests it may one day provide autistics with a better way to grasp the subtle nuances of communication — basically, as a social coach.

Photo © AndreaVallejos | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Photo of a metal toy robot.]

Similar efforts have emerged in the world of social robotics, where it is postulated that autistic children can learn to socialize with the help of mechanical “friends,”that is, robots programmed to teach kids to identify emotions, facial expressions, and so on. Like the watch, these coaching devices are envisioned as being able to bring autistics in line with conventional standards of daily social behavior.

I have no doubt that the intentions here are good. The stated purpose behind these efforts is usually something along the lines of, “We want to help autistic people navigate the social world.”

My question for anyone involved with creating or supporting these efforts is: do you know what it feels like to make your way through a social interaction courtesy of external feedback and coached guidelines? Because I do. I can actually describe these things.

Growing up, I did not know how to process body language. I primarily struggled with non-verbal communication and social pragmatics. I was alone most of my life.

As a teenager, I tried to teach myself body language. I observed others. I taught myself to mimic a very basic repertoire of hand gestures and arm movements. I memorized small-talk scripts.

As an adult, I worked with therapists who diagnosed me as being on the autism spectrum. They also encouraged me to commit to memory the non-verbal codes of body language and social cues. They educated me about general conversation patterns. They taught me to both interpret eye contact, and use it myself through simple counting techniques.

There was no wrist-watch or robots involved, but the basic concept was the same: social coaching, designed to help me understand and mimic conventional (non-autistic) behavior.

So, what does it feel like to be trained or coached like this?

All of these efforts — across the board — left me feeling exhausted and depressed. They left me feeling more alone, not less.

I did manage to absorb a fair number of the skills they taught me — I reached a point, for example, where I could navigate small talk. That seems like a minor thing. It is not a minor thing. I reached a point where I could interpret some body language, and some changes in vocal pitch.

But, in moments where I was interacting with someone and trying to use everything I had learned — in moments where I was mechanically moving my arms through body language, and concentrating on how the other person gestured and spoke — I felt an equal mix of fatigue and alienation. The mental workload to process it all was just too much, and prevented me from feeling like I was really present. More than anything, this social coaching made my body feel like a marionette that could move in the approved ways, while my mind was off somewhere else, watching from a distance.

It was also ironic. There is a stereotype that autism leaves people “trapped” inside a shell, but these therapeutic attempts to help me act less autistic were what made me feel trapped, not any of my autistic traits. Even when I successfully navigated a conversation, I ended up feeling tired and alone. The experience made me wish I was like other people, and it made me hate myself.

When I hear about the social watches and the social robots, and listen to the stated goals of these efforts, all I can think is: I’ve been down this road. It left me full of self-loathing and feeling depressed. And thinking that so many autistics have been down this road. Specifically, adult autistics.

These particular forms of coaching technology are primarily focused on providing therapy for children. But, unlike adults, young people haven’t had enough life experience to see where these things can take you. It can be hard for them to distinguish feedback that may be helpful, from feedback that may work against them.

Researchers and clinicians can also struggle to predict where these efforts can take those subjected to them. That is, again, because of the factor of experience. Adult autistics can draw from a lifetime of social experiences … we know the trajectories that are likely to play out. We know that, socially, you can learn to do everything right — you can check every box — and you can still feel shut out from a social world that is reliably hostile towards difference.

And yes, I can only speak for myself. People on the autism spectrum can be very different from one another; my experiences are not necessarily representative of others. But I also know that learning to feel at peace in my life required me to learn to identify my differences and work with them, not against them. I had to learn to put myself in situations where my strengths are valued, and to avoid situations where my challenges (sensory aversions, for example) might be problematic.

Self-acceptance like this, like mine, it doesn’t get you everything — but it has to be what you start with, and it has to stay with you. Self-acceptance is a foundation that makes anything good possible.

My fear is that social coaching technology lacks that foundation. It is basically a wallpaper for hiding differences, when autistic kids and adults really need supports predicated first and foremost on self-acceptance.

I should add that technology is not the problem here. Technology is a vitally important component of life for many, many people on the spectrum. That is why when sorting through these issues, it helps to keep a few questions in mind: does this tech empower or conceal autistic differences? Are the goals of any device goals that have been established by autistics, or are they conventional non-autistic standards?

It is only when tech design is driven by personal experiences and the aspirations that arise out of those experiences, that people have a much better chance of discovering something special and truly beneficial — whether the beneficiaries are autistic, or not.