Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Review: To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines

In To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines Judith Newman manages to take an incredibly difficult topic and turn it into an entertaining, can't-put-down book.

I recall vaguely having heard a segment on NPR or the like about a mom heaping praise on Siri. The idea was that her autistic child could engage with Siri in a way that was both novel and educational. Siri had unlimited patience to talk about any topic, and has a primitive set of manners that helped her son gently learn hard to grasp social lessons. When I saw To Siri with Love on the bookshelf at the library I thought it must be the same story teller, so I picked up the book.

I'm certainly glad I did.

The vast majority of the book has nothing to do with Siri or any other tech. It's a mother's story of her raising twin boys, one of which is autistic. The whole emotional spectrum is here: from joy and boundless pride, to fear and absolute frustration. For those of us peeking in on this world from the outside, I'm thankful that Newman took the time to show us the full range. As I was reading the book, I found myself at times cringing internally, knowing that Newman would almost certainly take flak for being so open. What Mom wants to admit that her son has limitations, much less limitations that make him less able to function in society.

Mostly, I'm thankful to Newman for helping further fill in a picture of what it must be like to live with or even be, autistic. If we didn't understand what it meant to be blind, we'd consider those without sight clumsy, lazy, disinterested in learning and perhaps just dumb. But once we understand they simply can't see the obstacles in front of them, our perspective vastly shifts and we find that blind people are capable of everything a seeing individual is. Newman describes a sort of social and emotional blindness in her son that leaves us quick to judge him as things he isn't. Yet, once we understand his limitations how he's different, we can see he's so much more than we imagined.

Of course, I recognize how important it is to take this as a sample size of 1, with a condition that is still far from well understood. So yeah, don't read the book and think: "OK, now I get autism." But still, getting a view into Newman's son's life, with all his struggles and successes is invaluable. And there's plenty of humor and wit to keep the book moving.

Update: As is my habit, after posting this I went over to Amazon to peek at the reviews. I like to hold off on reading reviews until after I've posted my own comments so I'm not too skewed by anything I read there.

At first I saw that the book had 99 reviews and was rated 4 1/2 stars. Huh, I thought, people liked this book. And then I started reading. Ouch.

As I suspected, many were not amused with Newman's book and leveled quite a few charges at her. Some I agree with, some I don't. Here are some of the biggies.

She massively and hurtfully violated the privacy of her child, which is inexcusable. I appreciate this charge, but ultimately don't think it's a deal breaker. Yes, she's putting her entire family on display, but I think there's a purpose there that may allow the ends to justify the means. I think it's noteworthy that she doesn't just expose her autistic son's life, opting to share dirt on everyone. With that said, I'd be downright mortified if my Mom published a tell all of my birth to Bar Mitzvah.

Her consideration of sterilizing her son falls somewhere between troubling and demonic. This I agree with. I suppose I can appreciate her sharing her deepest thoughts, even if they seem wrong headed. Ultimately, it's the book itself and her own words that seem to show just how wrong it is to make this medical decision for her child. She herself says that 'delays' are just that, 'delays.' So deciding that your child should go the rest of his life without the option of having children just seems wrong.

She doesn't love her son. She wishes her son wasn't autistic. She likes her neurotypical son better. I'm not buying these arguments. Yes, she's open about the challenges of raising her child. And what parent wouldn't want their child to have an easier life? If my Mom could have waved a magic wand and made me less socially awkward, a better reader and not have dyslexia, she would have done so. But just like my Mom accepted and loved me, for me, so do I get the sense does Newman and her child.

I appreciate the individuals who took time to write extensive reviews on the book. A number of the reviews are written by folks who identify as autistic. I can only imagine what it must be like to have a book that seems written about you, but gets it so wrong.

So here's the thing: read the book, then go read the reviews, then go continue to be open minded and learn more.

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