When journalist Judith Newman wrote a New York Times story about the incredible bond between her autistic son Gus and Siri, Apple’s ‘intelligent personal assistant,’ she never expected the piece would go viral. But viral it went and, this week, Newman’s memoir, To Siri With Love, a book that blends science, stats, family—her son Gus and his twin, Henry, are now 15—and a hefty dose of humor and humanity, hits bookstores. We sat down with Newman to talk about the fact that one in 68 American kids is diagnosed with autism today, that technology can become an unlikely connector as well as her highest hopes for readers.
Did you think that your Times piece would strike such a chord?
I had no idea. I’m always shocked when someone reads anything I’ve written that’s more than a blurb on Facebook. But you forget how many people are affected by autism. It’s not just having a kid on the spectrum but relatives and friends are affected, too.
A book about your family is so deeply personal.
Writing a book about your family when your kids are older is a dicey prospect. That aside, writing about your family seems both incredibly self-indulgent and incredibly risky at the same time. I’m always surprised when people say ‘you’re so brave.’ What is your choice? If you’re writing about your life, what are you going to do but be truthful?
In one chapter, you write candidly about guilt and blame. Was that difficult?
Like every single mother, when you have a child with an issue, you think ‘what happened,’ ‘what did I do.’ Autism is such mystery and I believe it’s a cocktail of genetics plus environment, but I don’t beat myself up about it anymore. The answer is probably a combination of things—I had a child with a man much older than me, I had IVF, I was older, I had a terrible pregnancy—I was in a state of dread and stress hormones like cortisol may play a role. Statistically I was the poster child for someone to have an autistic child. There’s a lot of blame in this world that we put on ourselves. Sometimes it’s legitimate but in many other instances you could take the right vitamins and stop eating sushi and still have a child with autism.
The book isn’t just about your family—it’s informative too.
I always think a spoon full of science is good in a family memoir. I feel that my sitting there blathering on about my observations is all very well as a mother. I’m not a scientist but I think that a lot of the things I looked at, thought about or wanted to help my son with were grounded in science.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about autism.
I’d love to tear into the pseudo-science about autism. A lot of that is dangerous. All you have to do is to poke around on the Internet and see these people who are desperate doing crazy things. There was just one story of parents feeding their children a form of bleach to get rid of autism. There were all these photos pointing out the parasites that have come out of their child. I want to scream ‘that’s part of your child’s intestines that burnt out.’
What are some things that people misunderstand about autism?
I think people are scared. You walk into a situation and you don’t know anything about autism and you see a kid doing a weird thing. You’re in Walmart and see a kid flapping, sounding like a strangled goose and speaking really loudly. You think something will happen to you or your child. What will happen is nothing. What I say to people often is what you’re seeing is an autistic person who isn’t in his or her comfort zone at that moment. I also tell everyone over and over again to step back when you see a parent with a kid who might be different or doing something weird and don’t assume the kid is a spoiled brat. There could be something else going on that’s a little bit out of the mother’s control. Say hi to the mom. Be open.
Is Siri still a big part of Gus’ life?
Gus still enjoys Siri but he uses Siri more like other people do. He’s still communications impaired but he uses her for information. And while he hasn’t moved on to becoming a guy who can have regular conversations, he doesn’t use Siri as a pal the way he used to. He’s now obsessed with texting people. His definition of friendship is anyone who will text him back which is daunting for a mother. He’ll have long relationships with telemarketers—he enjoys the back and forth.
What’s the No. 1 thing you want readers to take away from the book?
I hope that when Gus goes for a job interview, people will remember that this is Gus from the book. The second is that everybody wants dignity, a place at the table. I hope that people work to embrace autistic people into their lives and into their communities so they can live their best, most productive lives.
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