This article “Can an app for Google Glass offer a path out of autism?” really infuriates me. The Beta Boston post describes apps for the head-mounted eyeglass computer Google Glass. In development by Cambridge, MA startup Brain Power, apps aim to encourage autistic kids to maintain eye contact when people are talking to them. One app rewards eye contact with images of popular cartoon characters, while another highlights an interlocutor’s eyes, since kids with autism may tend to focus on someone’s mouth instead.
I support the ultimate goal here, that is, teaching commonly accepted social skills to people who might not have them [if the people want them] so that they can connect with conventionally socialized people. I’m all for increased communication, especially between people with disabilities and people without — mostly so that the people with disabilities have a chance to tell ableist dipsticks to take their assumptions and shove off. :p
While I advocate for the goal, I decry the means to the end. This article makes clear that no people with autism were involved in the development of Brain Power apps. Founder Ned Sahin has no personal experience with autism, even though he was keynote speaker at this month’s Autism Investment Conference. Creators of the apps didn’t even talk to kids with autism directly when they brainstormed. Do kids with autism who don’t make eye contact think that their lack of eye contact is a problem? Do they want to develop methods for maintaining eye contact? Do they think that cartoon characters and highlighted mouths might help them? Who knows?
Brain Power apparently didn’t think that the firsthand input from app users was important. Instead they asked parents what the parents wanted for their children. In other words, Brain Power’s apps result from asking a bunch of people who are not kids and not necessarily autistic what software they, the non-autistic adults, would like so that the autistic kids in their lives could better conform to their expectations of properly socialized human beings. Or, to put it more bluntly, Brain Power violates the dictum strongly associated with the U.S. disability rights movement: “Nothing about us without us.” With arrogant condescension, Brain Power’s non-autistic developers assumed that they knew what autistic kids needed and thus received praise from an ableist public that denies consideration of the voices of people with disabilities.
By the way, anyone who tries to rebut me by pointing out that some kid who tried out the Brain Power apps said, “I think I am breaking out of an autism prison!” will be summarily ignored. I am not arguing against Brain Power apps’ potential ability to benefit people. Rather I am arguing against the viewpoint that spawned these apps: i.e., a world view in which kids with autism are problematic individuals with limited understanding who can only be made to sustain eye contact through rewards such as pictures of cartoon animals. Why are autistic kids who don’t make eye contact considered a problem? Why aren’t non-autistic parents who are so hung up on eye contact as a marker of interaction that they can’t accommodate other ways of being considered a problem? Why aren’t ableist startups who want to use technology to train kids out of their disabilities so that they parents can be happier considered a problem?