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Sunday, February 4, 2024

Autistic Kids and Technology

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the day-to-day challenges facing autistic people and their families.

In spite of widespread assumptions that young people on the autism spectrum have a “natural” attraction to technology — a premise that leads to significant speculation about how media helps or harms them — relatively little research actually exists about their everyday tech use. It’s a gap Meryl Alper, a researcher exploring the social and cultural implications of communication technologies, addresses in her new book “Kids Across the Spectrums,” an ethnographic study of the digital lives of autistic young people.

Based on nearly a decade of in-depth qualitative research conducted in the homes of more than 60 neurodivergent children from an array of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, Alper challenges the prevailing myths and stereotypes that have perpetuated misconceptions about autistic youth and their relationship with technology. What Alper found is that what autistic youth do with technology is not radically different from their nonautistic peers. The experiences that children on the autism spectrum have with technology are less explained by their diagnoses alone, she writes in the book’s introduction, and more by the intersections of their disability with other aspects of their identity and the modern conditions of childhood: “They differentially face significant social and health inequalities, including limited recreational programs, poor neighborhood safety, and challenges receiving appropriate therapeutic services.” These disparities, Alper argues, “spill directly over into autistic children’s media habits.”

“Kids Across the Spectrums,” which is available in a freely downloadable open access edition, stands as a timely and deeply humane work that will especially resonate with educators, technologists, and parents of neurodivergent children, who will find insight and solace in its pages.