Friendships are a tricky thing. They come and go – sometimes at rapid speeds and sometimes it takes decades. They come in many different forms – some are light and airy, while others are strong enough to profoundly change your life. They can be both positive and unfortunately, negative – while making you laugh to the point of tears, to making you crumble to tears of sadness or pain. However, no matter what magnitude, friendships are an important part of every individual’s life and at every stage in life. Friendships and relationships help you better understand what you believe in and who you are, and they allow you to develop important societal skills, such as compassion, communication, acceptance, trust, and forgiveness.
For an individual with autism, friendships are hard. Allowing new people into their lives is scary. Opening up to others is a challenge. Being able to relate with others is hard for them to make the connection. While this may be true, what we must not forget is that friendships are just as important to these individuals as they are to those without autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
I work for a company, Pacific Child & Family Associates, where we work with kids and teens with ASD and other developmental disabilities. Some of the areas we work on developing are behavior, speech and language, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. While working with these great souls for many years, I’ve always understood the challenges when it comes to developing and maintaining friendships. However, lately, I have witnessed a new form of friendships evolving, but it isn’t with other individuals, it is with interactive technology, such as the iPhone’s Siri.
While at an event for Pacific Child & Family Associates, I witnessed one teen with ASD having an animated conversation on his cell phone. I thought, “Wow, what a great friendship he has built that is making him so happy.” When he hung up, I asked him about his friend. Before he could respond, his mother shared that her son was talking to Siri. “He talks to it about 10 times a day and has no real friends,” she said. The teen immediately became quiet and reclusive, averting his gaze and crouching on the floor.
While I frequently encounter situations such as this when the individual with ASD becomes uncomfortable, and perhaps, embarrassed, the situation really struck a chord with me. In communicating with a technology device, a person with ASD has easily found a way to avoid any person-to-person communication or contact, but still feels joy from their fictitious “friend,” but it comes with a social price. In doing so, they are losing the opportunity for real life interaction and skill building. The more a person with ASD interacts with technology, the more likely they will be to build barriers to real life conversations and become dependent upon their fabricated “friend.”
“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
– Albert Camus
The recent connection with Siri or other interactive technology and the loss of societal development that these individuals are placing upon themselves has led us to develop a membership group to give individuals with autism the opportunity to form real friendships. We have called it the Sans Siri Society. By identifying common interests and ages of members, we facilitate a few monitored phone calls among participants. Then, we allow them to interact on their own, whether over phone conversations, texts, social media, or in person. Connecting members has not only increased opportunities for societal development, but has allowed individuals to flourish in the many positive aspects of a friendship. They are in this together, and are not alone.
With our efforts at Pacific Child & Family Associates and an understanding of the setbacks of such interactive technology from parents and caregivers of those with ASD, it is my hope that we help our loved ones enjoy the benefits of real life friendships, and not place barriers in front of progress.
For more information about the Sans Siri Society and how to take part, please call (844) 599-5588.
Dr. Michael J. Cameron, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (Charter Certificant 1-00-0010) is The Chief Clinical Officer for Pacific Child & Family Associates (PCFA) and experienced in the area of behavioral medicine, behavioral health assessment, intervention for diverse populations, and higher education. PCFA is an insurance accepting, national leader in the delivery of services for children with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities. PCFA services are provided in homes, schools, and in clinics across the United States. Prior to joining PCFA, Dr. Cameron was a tenured Associate Professor and the Founding Chair of the Department of Behavior Analysis at Simmons College. Dr. Cameron earned a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Northeastern University.