This is going to touch on a sensitive topic, and I want to make absolutely clear from the beginning of this that the opinions I express here are my own. I have enormous love and respect for the entire autism community and I think that it is vital that we fight against the stereotypes that crop up surrounding people with autism -- especially the one that says that autistic individuals are prone to illegal and violent behavior. It simply is not true.
I also know that what I will write here will be disturbing to some people -- especially to some of my own sisters- and brothers-in-arms who are desperately fighting for the welfare of their children. I don't mean to sound alarmist, and I don't want people to think that I think that I've got everything figured out, or that I am doing everything perfectly. I don't and I am not. As always, the first and most important patient in my own clinic of life is myself. I've got a lot of work to do. But lately I have had some stuff on my mind, and I feel like today is as good a day as any to get it off of my chest. If it helps you, great. If you disagree with me, that's fine too. If you feel like I don't understand your own unique situation you are right. I can only see the world from my own point of view. I am not here to tell anyone how to raise their kids, I just want to share some thoughts about how I am raising my own.
I want to write about technology addiction (specifically pornography) and autism. Yesterday we had a stake leadership meeting for church in which the stake presidency expressed their deep concern about pornography addiction in the stake. Before the meeting they had recommended that we spend an hour going through the LDS church's Overcoming Pornography website. There are loads of fantastic resources on the site, but one that stuck out in particular to me was an article called "Keeping Safe and Balanced in a Google-YouTube-Twitter-Facebook-iEverything World" by Jan Pinborough.
Pinborough cites one study that found that kids between eight and eighteen in the U.S. spend an average of 53 hours per week using entertainment media. She cites another study that claims that "one in ten young people who play video games show classic symptoms of addiction." I find these numbers staggering -- especially the one about addiction. I think most parents would be concerned about these numbers, but when I think about raising my own pack of kids -- including two with autism -- my level of concern jumps a level.
Here is the truth. When raising kids, even the most responsible parents find it very tempting to let the TV or the iPad do the babysitting for a while. When you have a child with autism who seems hard-wired to fixate on something like Dora, or Thomas the Tank Engine, or Batman, or the Avengers, or Dr. Who, or whatever, it is even easier to let them spend more and more time taking that thing in -- especially when they seem to enjoy so little else. Believe me, I totally understand the rationalization that says "My kid's and my own life is tough in 1,000 different ways. There is nothing wrong in letting us all take a brake by allowing him to get his Disney movie fix."
Babysitting is not the only reason people turn their autistic children over to devices. Perhaps no single tool in the history of mankind has been as liberating for people with autism as the computer. It seems like the possibilities for desktops, tablets and smartphones to improve their life is unlimited. There are apps that will help them to communicate and organize their schedule. Blogging, Twitter, and Facebook have given them an opportunity to connect with like-minded people. Professions like computer programming seem tailor-made for the highly logical and detail-oriented mind of people with autism. And autistic individuals can use the internet to look up information about and rules of engagement for any number of the social activities that baffle them.
I get that, and don't want to downplay the great things that technology has done to improve the lives of countless autistic individuals. But the dangers associated with the extended screen time have solidified in my mind my own responsibility as a parent to be hyper-vigilant in the way I expose my children to and educate them about technology.
If we give our children unlimited, unsupervised, and unmediated access to electronic devices we run the risk of creating young people who from a very young age find more satisfaction from the screen than from the world around them, who have deeper connections with the characters on a screen than with their peers or family members, and who rely solely on technology to help them navigate an increasingly complex social environment. Plainly put, we are fostering in them a powerful technology addiction. Now imagine what happens when these kids reach sexual maturity -- a physical process that even in neurotypical kids comes far earlier than they are mentally or emotionally ready to deal with it.
Today I have read two very good articles about autism and pornography. The first was this one by John Elder Robinson, who has autism, and the second was this one by Temple Grandin's mother Eustacia Cutler. Both articles argue that we must find better ways to help autistic men in particular to understand and navigate their sexuality so that they won't find themselves getting into serious legal trouble by resorting to the internet in order to understand this most-baffling and yet intriguing of all social interactions -- a practice that too often ends in the exploration of child pornography.
Today I don't mean to write about how we could change the legal code to account for the complexity of something like autism, nor do I hope to cover how to teach autistic young men about healthy sexuality. I heard someone say once that all of the easy problems were solved a long time ago and now all we've got left are the hard ones.
Rather than talk about what everyone else should do, today I would like to talk about what my wife and I intend to do. Addiction in all of its forms is a formidable foe. Guarantees in this arena are hard to come by, but my wife and I are committed fight this with everything we have got. We are not perfect at any of this. Like I said, we are a work in progress. But if we don't have a plan in place we will fail. Here is our plan, consider it more of a mission statement than a description of our daily life.
First of all, we will resist the desire to turn over our parenting to any device. Our children may have an affinity for technology (I certainly do), but it will not be an addiction. While our children are very young we will seriously restrict their access to technology. We will teach them that their bodies are an amazing gift from God and a source of some of life's deepest joy. We will encourage them to strengthen their bodies and enjoy using them in positive ways including dancing, singing, sports, and other forms of exercise. We will do things every day that will help our children to bond with each other, with their peers, and especially with us their parents. We will be their best friends and social coaches and teach them how to develop healthy relationships with the people around them.
As they grow we will teach them healthy and balanced ways to use technology to supplement their lives. We will follow the advice of people like Pinborough, implementing a number of tactics to curb technology use and encouraging our families to use it in a way that is balanced and useful. Through us our children will see what real love looks like, and we will teach them in an honest and open way not just about the dangers of pornography but of the joy of healthy, committed physical intimacy. We will teach them to be grateful for their unique way of seeing the world and we will encourage them to find joy in connecting with the people around them.
I know that this may all sound like idealistic drivel to some of you, but honestly when I think of the job ahead and the weaknesses that I exhibit every day in working with my kids I feel pretty small and could do with a dose of idealism. This is a battle worth fighting, and we are going to trust in the Lord and give it everything we have got. We owe them that much.
As always, please feel free to comment on and share this post with your friends and family. We hope our story helps other people working with children and adults with autism. Feel free, as well, to click on the thermometer and donate to help us pay for the Brain Balance program that has done so much for us. Every little bit helps!