Saturday, March 9, 2013

Auti-Sim: A Lens into Autism for "Neurotypicals"?

An article published in the UK newspaper The Independent was recently brought to my attention. The article in question describes a computer "game" that is actually a simulation of what it is like to live with autism. 

More specifically, the program focuses on the sensory issues faced by people on the spectrum (light, sounds, and so on), and--going by the description in the article--exaggerates these features of the setting in the game (a playground) to give the user an idea of how the world looks from an autistic perspective.

After taking the time to consider the implications of such a "game," I have a few thoughts. On the one hand, this is a remarkable concept. For almost all my life, I have had to explain myself and what it is like to see the world through my eyes. Individuals on the spectrum are tasked with having to constantly explain ourselves to "neurotypicals," and this is especially daunting when you have difficulty verbally expressing yourself. 

For there to be something like this that could just give people a straight-up lens into my experiences could make a huge difference in extending compassion and assistance to people on the autism spectrum, especially less affected folks who often have a more difficult time getting help because we don't "look" like something is "wrong" with us.

On the other hand, however, this is also a dangerous concept, and one that could do a great disservice to people on the spectrum. There's a saying that goes "If you've seen one person with autism, you've seen one person with autism," and the same holds true for how each person is affected by their autism--some are more affected, some are less affected. 

To truly give the family members or loved ones of a person on the spectrum an idea of what it is like to have autism, you would need to specifically tailor this program to the issues of that individual, because "one size fits all" absolutely does not apply here. 

Another concern I have is that the creators are referring to this as a "game." For those of us on the spectrum, this is distinctly not a game; it's our lives, and what we go through on a daily basis. We can't hit pause, or mute, or turn it off when we don't want to deal with it anymore, and it worries me that neurotypicals who would try this would fall into that line of thinking. 

Also, oftentimes people on the spectrum are described as being "robotic," and it concerns me that a program like this would inadvertently give credence to the idea that we're somehow "not human"; that we're more like computers or machines, and thereby reinforcing that "otherness" and the accompanying stigma that we've all struggled with for so long.

Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, I can see what the program's creators are trying to do. But I also think that the details are incredibly crucial, and such a program could end up being very problematic on certain levels. 

This program is a significant move in the right direction, and offers the potential to give non-spectrum people a window into autism, and could prove tremendously beneficial to families and individuals in their attempts to obtain appropriate services and supports. But it is far from perfect, and could certainly use a long list of disclaimers, addenda, footnotes, etc. to go along with it.