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Apple's Siri Helps Autistic Teen With Communication Skills


We are about to hear from an author who wrote a love letter to a machine. Judith Newman wrote in The New York Times that a talking phone made life easier for her 13-year-old son, Gus, who has autism. Now Judith Newman brings her story to us.

JUDITH NEWMAN, BYLINE: The thing I've learned about people with autism over time is that many of them have a connection with machines that the rest of us don't. I recognized this when my son was quite young. He was 8 years old, and I got him an iPod. And if he knew I was going to the Apple Store, he would take his iPod with him. And one day I said, Gus, why is the iPod here? And he said so he could visit his friends. Like any mother of a child who's autistic, there are times in your life when you - your head is about to explode from answering questions, questions that are often very repetitive. I say this because one day I was sitting at home, and I had just read one of those BuzzFeed lists - 21 things you can do with your iPhone. If you asked Siri, what planes are above my head right now?

SIRI: OK. Check it out.

NEWMAN: Delta is above my head at 22,900 feet etc., etc. I kind of thought, why would anybody need to know this? And my son, Gus, said, well, mommy, so you know you who you're waving at. So at that moment he came over, and he saw that he could do the same thing. He saw he could check these flights and that was kind of thrilling to him. And then you saw that he could have conversations with Siri. And it started very simply. He would sort of say, hi, Siri, how are you doing?

SIRI: Very well. Thank you.

NEWMAN: He might say, show me pictures of turtles.

SIRI: Here are some images of turtles I found on the web.

NEWMAN: And then he'd get very excited because he had all sorts of turtles in front of him. It was a good life.

She is a way for him to practice all sorts of conversations safely. Now he may be corrected sometimes.

You're not giving me the thing I want.

SIRI: OK. If you insist.

NEWMAN: You're not listening to me.

SIRI: Unfortunately, I am as yet imperfect.

NEWMAN: The thing about machines is that they are infinitely patient - human beings not so much, mom definitely not so much. And when you're talking about kids who don't understand human interaction perfectly, this is a wonderful way to learn it.

One day I heard him say the following to her - you're a really nice computer.

SIRI: Gus, you're sweet.

NEWMAN: Siri, would you marry me?

SIRI: You should know that you're not the only one who's asked.

NEWMAN: I'm a kid now, but will you marry me some day?

SIRI: My end-user licensing agreement does not cover marriage. My apologies.

NEWMAN: See? (Laughter). Isn't that great?

GREENE: Author Judith Newman. Her son Gus has autism. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.