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April 4th, 2006 (01:25 pm)

current mood: thoughtful

This is really interesting. Scientists have developed an "emotional/social intelligence prosthetic device", primarily for use by people with autistic-spectrum disorders, that will sense and interpret the reactions of anyone with whom the autistic person converses and that vibrates if that person is showing signs of boredom or annoyance.

It's a tricky little thing, because it sounds pretty good on the surface, but when you look at it a little closer, it starts to sound not so good at all.

Here's the deal. I think anyone who knows someone with a serious autistic disorder, like severe Asperger's, for example, would be able to see the use of such a device right off. There's a kid I used to know back when I went to Catholic church, he was an Asperger's kid. He really, truly could not sense a single smidgen of social nuance. At all. Like many people with Asperger's, he had a tendency to hyperfocus on specific fields of interest - his were history, video games, and vintage comic books, I believe - and for him, the disorder was severe enough that he really couldn't tell that not everyone was as fascinated by this as he was. He'd elbow into any conversation that related at all to any of those subjects, no matter how tangentially, and he'd be off and running, barely pausing for breath. His mother, if she caught him at it, would literally clap her hand over his mouth and hold it there until he'd stopped speaking. He was a teenager at the time.

This kid, not to put too fine a point on it, drove people crazy. I always hated myself whenever I wound up interacting with him, because I didn't want to be so annoyed by him, I knew he couldn't help it, and yet I have my own social interaction issues that made the experience nightmarish for me. It can be really alarming, especially to someone as uneasy in social situations as I am, to feel like *nothing* will get you out of a conversation except something just as blunt as a mid-sentence interruption of "I need to leave now. Bye!"

And yet I've been on both sides of those conversations. I've been the one pigeonholed and crawling out of my skin, sure. But I've also been the autistic one. I have a form of Asperger's myself, nothing as severe as the kid I described above, but severe enough that I've had to learn, slowly and painfully, virtually all of the nuances of social interaction. I was the kid who always stood too close and talked too loud, I was the girl who couldn't understand that not everyone was as fascinated with what she was thinking right that second as she was. And you know what? It's *hard*. I think sometimes there's a perception that because autistic kids don't know they're annoying people, they also don't really care. Not so, my friends. I can think of few experiences more painful than the horrible, sinking-stomach letdown when you catch on, too late, to that glazed look in someone's eye and you realize you've done it again. You've been babbling, talking too loud and too much. You're being annoying and they're judging you for it. You've Done Something Wrong. And the thing about it is that the whole rest of the world *knows* what you've done wrong, and you don't. You don't have the faintest idea what it is that you said or did. Was it that your voice was notched too high? Or did you give too many details about the book you were reading? Maybe you used too many big words, were you being pretentious? Or maybe it was something else entirely, maybe you were picking your nose without realizing it or shifting from foot to foot in a way that was distracting. You don't have a clue. When I was a kid I used to tell my mother that it was like the whole world had been issued a rulebook at birth, but I hadn't gotten my copy. Everyone knew the rules except for me. And the world judges you harshly when you don't have those rules. Even when you're a kid, it judges you.

And that, in the end, is what bothers me so much about that device. It doesn't seem to think any farther than stopping the autistic person from annoying whomever they're speaking to. In other words, it's all about the "normal" person in the conversation. There's the assumption that the autistic person doesn't want to annoy the normal person, and of course they don't, but without information on what exactly it is that they're doing that's annoying, the vibrations are less than useless. They're hurtful. They say to you, "You're doing it again. You're being a pain in the ass. You're so annoying. Shut up." And that's great for the other person in the conversation, because they get to flash a grateful smile and walk away. But think of where that leaves the autistic person. I know where it would leave me. I'd be crushed. If you think I'm being melodramatic, you underestimate how many times it's happened to me and just how shitty it makes me feel. Really. It's crushing, to feel like you're the one who's out of step and pissing people off. Social education and coaching is one thing; it takes you out of that painful situation and puts you in a nonjudgmental (hopefully) arena where they teach you how to do it right when it matters. But a device that vibrates when you've pissed someone off? That doesn't give you any information on what you've done, except that you've done it again? That, in my book, is not cool.


Posted by: Heidi (sioneva)
Posted at: April 5th, 2006 09:24 am (UTC)

I don't have autism or Asperger's but coming back from Africa as a kid I *always* felt that I was out of place - an alien in "my" own country, so to speak. I was always saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, and not fitting in and, like you (although I guess for different reasons) I never understood why either. I was able to learn, slowly, but sometimes even today I screw up and put my foot in my mouth and I still can't figure out what I've done.

Having a device like that *as part of* a greater social coaching effort would possibly be a good thing but, like you, it would not have helped me at ALL to have someone indicating to me that I was being inept without also then helping me to understand what I'd done.

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