THE BLOG
06/30/2014 04:55 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

An Individual With Autism's Only Friend: Siri

As part of a partnership between Pacific Child and Family Associates, JetBlue, Autism Speaks and TSA, I attended the Blue Horizons for Autism -- an autism travel practice event at Burbank Bob Hope Airport. More than 200 people got to experience the entire travel experience from start to finish in a safe, supportive environment.

It was great to see so many families come out to work with their children on the complex and overwhelming process of checking in and boarding an aircraft. The entire terminal and airplane was devoted to these families, and that's where I met Byron.

Byron is 15 years old and has Asperger syndrome. I met him and his mom in the airplane terminal, and he was on the phone when I sat down next to him. Byron was bright and animated, asking the other caller how her weekend was. I could hear the reply on his full volume phone and was surprised to hear a mechanized and digitized voice respond. He said goodbye softly and then got off the phone.

When his call was through, I asked him about his friend who had obviously made him so happy. Before he could respond, his mom interjected.

"Byron is talking to Siri," she said flatly, "He talks to it about 10 times a day and has no real friends."

Byron looked at me, and I saw the color fade from his bright blue eyes. He quickly averted his gaze, crouched down to the floor, and put his hands in his pant waistband.

Siri is a digital personal assistant and knowledge navigator in the Apple's iOS software. But to Byron, Siri is a friend. And he's not the only one. The recent film "Her" by Spike Jonze touched on the implications of having a "friend" in your pocket and accessible 24/7. In the movie, a man comes to believe he's in love with the computerized personality.

This phenomenon -- personal connection to technology -- was predicted by German philosopher Martin Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology (1953). Heidegger called it the "abandonment of being" and posited that as technology advanced, we'd lose our ability to interact with one another as humans.

For children with ASD, Siri and other interactive technology is a sure way to avoid some of the obstacles they experience with personal interaction. But it comes with a social price. The more a person with ASD interacts with technology, the more likely they will be to build barriers to real life conversations.

What is a Friend?

"I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light." -- Helen Keller

True friendship goes above and beyond the simple interaction that Siri provides. Friendship is about showing up for someone, and knowing they'll be present for you. It's reciprocal caring and support in the world. It's talking and engagement -- but also sometimes shared silence. It's perspective taking, listening and understanding.

In short: Siri is not a friend. Friendships have a natural evolution. There's a starting point -- but there's development and deepening of understanding. With technology like Siri, children with ASD are stuck in the first stage -- interaction -- and aren't going deeper with connections and social skills.

It's Time to Crowd Out Siri

Byron's experience struck a chord with me because his Siri "solution" is something anyone can access and rely on. It's widespread throughout our society, and it's far too easy to replace technology with friendship even for people not on the ASD spectrum.

I realized that we as a community of professionals and families that support people with ASD we need a solution to address and overcome the tendency toward technological connections. I'm calling it the Sans Siri Society for ASD.

The society will help kids make genuine connections with people that share their interests. Through a network of volunteers of similar age and common interests, children and teens with ASD can start building genuine connections.

Sans Siri Society volunteers are:

  • Vetted and coached to understand ASD and their new potential friend
  • Available to talk, share stories and provide an opportunity for social engagement
  • Able to provide options for "store and forward video" and the deconstruction of the social interaction
  • Creating an opportunity for feedback and instruction

It's about creating the opportunity for these kids, but not contriving a friendship. The first few calls are set up and monitored by parents, and then special precautions are put into place. After that, the volunteer can continue the conversations as well as give some guidance to the child with ASD. They can help the child understand where they are excelling from a social perspective.

The Sans Siri Society provides an opportunity for skill building in a unique way. It does not supplant the need for skill development, but reinforces and provides real world feedback on social skills.

The result? Children with ASD have the opportunity to develop friendships, have people initiating conversations with, and make a connection with someone in the world that they can talk to.

Want to take part? Please call (844) 599-5588 for more information.