Saturday, November 7, 2009
Mobile Electronics: Do they Help or Hinder the Aspie?
When I ride the bus I am struck with just how different the riders look from how they might have looked just ten years ago.
Of course I am not the first to notice that people are largely in their own bubbles - ears occupied by headphones, eyes occupied by screen. The chit chat, the shared human experience of bus-riding - that awareness of being part of a group of human beings engaging in the activity of travel via public transportation - has changed.
Critics call this dependence on electronics dangerous. Electronics usage, largely a solitary activity (at least in the physical sense), prevents people from connecting with others, and increases isolation, which can be damaging for people who already struggle with socializing. Penelope Trunk writes in the March 19, 2006, Boston Globe,“The human moment is a quality of interaction you don’t get from computers, or even the phone.”
But defenders of technology assert that the people who use technology while in group settings are often the very individuals who would have avoided socializing anyway. Technology, they propose, just gives them a comfortable way to avoid it.
But is it too comfortable?
The issue may not be black and white, however, at least for Aspies. Exposure Therapy, a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, is a well-researched avenue for facing and overcoming sources of anxiety, such as simple phobias. The therapy involves the creation of a program of steadily escalating steps or challenges, which work towards a final goal of reduced or eliminated anxiety responses. Reducing interactions with others to near zero may prevent Aspies from receiving the very therapy that might reduce discomfort in social situations: real-time interactions with others, with their messy outcomes and unpredictable paths.
Yes Aspies themselves often report reduced anxiety in groups when able to rely, at least partially, on technology. "My iPod had become a security blanket," says one client with Asperger's, "without it I found the bus intolerable, and wouldn't even board before the headphones were in." Yet this very client benefited greatly from a self-imposed regiment of practiced, brief "chit-chat sessions" with riders. They key to his success may have been selective use of his electronic gadget in social settings, such that its function was not total escape, but a support gadget of sorts. After adopting a more balanced understanding of how to use his gadget for anxiety modulation, rather than total prevention, he was able to increase social interactions, lower their associated anxiety and gain a sense of mastery over a previously fear-laden situation: group transportation.
For Aspies, technology may work best as an adjunct to socializing, rather than a substitute. Awareness and self-monitoring are key to the success of the Aspie who aims to lower social anxiety and reduce reliance on mobile electronics. Aspies, like all, largely require both solitary and group connection. After asking teens about this very issue, Neal Starkman of The Journal writes in his March 1, 2007 article on communication and technology, "From their responses, it seems that young people want technology because it secures two basic needs that, seemingly contradictory, are crucial to their well-being: to be left alone, and to connect with others."
If you have Asperger's and and iPod, you may want to push yourself to interact when you can....for some, it may be the only way to ride the bus comfortably. For information on cognitive behavioral techniques and Asperger's visit www.terratherapy.org or http://www.nacbt.org/whatiscbt.htm