My Photo
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Disability By Design?

As I sit an recuperate from my knee, using the latest in technological advances, I imagine all of us I-Pod, Blackberry people as the new Borg, hooked up from head to toe. For those who are autistic or disabled, the phenomenon may be no different. Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce ESP: The Emotional-Social Prostheses for autistic people.

The advent of virtual reality, computer devices and software, has made a world difference for many people with autism and many other developmental disabilities. From online high schools, where individuals are not judged for how they appear, and who can excel from such an “environment,” from the very software programs that my own son Adam uses to exemplify that he understands what is being asked of him -- that he can answer more in that forum than he can from a “real” person in the moment -- our environments are definitely changing.

When I first heard of the ESP device, I scoffed. I considered that my intuition might take on numerous physiological responses to a situation, not just the reading of a face. Be it the proverbial “gut reaction,” or “second sense,” I can’t imagine that ESP will be able to replace those senses while “face reading,” let alone mind-reading.

In our home, we have used the face-reading programs that Simon Baron-Cohen has already developed at Cambridge, and while I’m convinced anyone can study faces like dictionaries and rote learning can be a segue to real understanding, I am unconvinced that autistic people have difficulty understanding emotions and human interactions. In exchange for this popular view, I am more convinced that autistic people understand emotions quite fine. While unable, perhaps, to express an “appropriate” or expected “social” response, or "real-time" response, it seems apparent that autistics can register and understand human interaction, if simply different in responding or conveying the processing of that information in a typical way. What perhaps might be expected of an autistic person is a more deliberate way of teaching meaning for the expected social response (if the autistic adult chooses this). In return, society can do its part to understand autism so that this is a true compromise, and autistic people are not judged because of an atypical social response. This would make for an authentic empathy lesson.

I am thinking the ESP device might be an excellent tool for me to use, as long as it comes in a variety of cool colours, and can fit into my evening bag. I mean, I can decode faces just fine, thank you, but some assistance with mind-reading would be welcome!! Imagine being able to “decode” Mary Sue’s “I’m so happy to see you schmoogy schmoogy kiss” to its real meaning (oh God, there’s Estee and I have to say hello, let’s make this quick!). Seriously, I’m not sure if we all want to know what many of our friends and associates are really thinking, do we?

The ESP device, being developed by Rana el Kalibouby and Rosalind Picard, might be affixed to a baseball cap of a pair of sunglasses, writes, Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times Magazine (December 10, 2006): “It consists of a small camera mounted on a cap of glasses that monitors a conversations partner’s facial expressions and feeds the data into a hand-held computer. Software tracks the movement of facial features and classifies them using a coding system developed by the psychologist Paul Ekman, which is then correlated with a second taxonomy of emotional states created by the Cambridge autism researcher (and Ali G cousin) Simon Baron-Cohen. Almost instantaneously, the computer crunches each raised eyebrow and pucker of the lips, giving a whispered verdict about how the person is feeling….

El Kaliouby’s system, which is currently being tested on teenagers with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome, has an accuracy rate of 85 per cent when reading the emotional state of trained actors, though it drops to just 65 per cent for ordinary people. While the technology has a way to go before it is ready for the market, el Kaliouby is already thinking of ways it could be using in helping everyone ‘move up the spectrum’ defined by severe autism at the one end and off-the-chart emotional intelligence at the other. Cocktail party bores and dinner-table droners beware: el Kaliouby envisions a ‘Bore-o-Meter’ that might, say, cause your cellphone to vibrate when software senses that your conversation partner’s eyes are a glazing over….”

Anything that creates this bridge to understanding or getting any kind of edge in this world, is welcome in my home. I am grateful for the many technological advances from which Adam can benefit. I’m also very interested in technological advances aimed at assisting Adam, but with the understanding of autism, or at least the quest to a greater understanding of autism, that backs it. Until I see ESP in action, and based on the computer program Adam has already used, ESP may be DOA. But I’ll be fair. I’ll wait to see it in action.

ESP may also lead to greater ideas, initiated by autistic people, if they are truly to be workable and meaningful accomodations that benefit autistic people as opposed to non autistic people. I am all for greater access for all dis-abled individuals. I am very interested in the “Wheelchair Car,” otherwise named the Kenguru,

which looks something like the Smartcar where a wheel chair can roll right in and start driving. It offers the long-awaited accessibility for many disabled people in wheelchairs. At $12,500 and environment friendly (it’s electric), the government should think about subsidizing at least part of the cost.

In the meantime, I think we are doing just fine without ESP:

History has repeatedly demonstrated that empires seldom seem to retain sufficient cultural self-awareness to prevent them from overreaching and overgrasping. They have neglected to recognize that the true power of a successful culture resides in its example. To take it successfully, a society must be self-aware." (Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead, p. 176).


Blogger abfh said...

The Wheelchair Car looks like a great idea!

But as for the ESP device... well, the name alone shows what its inventors think of autistic people. A prosthesis? Good grief. And can you imagine employers using that device in interviews to test the "real" feelings of an applicant, and what that would do to an autistic person's chances (already slim) of being hired? The sooner ESP is DOA, the better.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Ms. Clark said...

Is there going to be a device that allows non-autistics to feel something like respect for autistics?

4:03 AM  
Anonymous Ms. Clark said...

One problem with that wheelchair car is that it seems to presume that people in wheelchairs don't have friends or kids who want or need to get in the car with them. I like it other than that.... is there a place for a few bags of groceries in the thing? I'd like to see something that would allow a person in a wheelchair to go along on a bike ride, and keep their wheelchair so that when they get to a destination, they'd have their wheelchair that they could use indoors if they wanted. I know about hand powered "bicycles", unless you could tow a wheelchair or convert the bicycle to a wheelchair that isn't going to do it.

4:06 AM  
Blogger laurentius rex said...

Actually there are many different wheelchair conversions for cars available, this is just a nice bit of designer chic icing. The real products are out there albeit overpriced and somewhat jeopardized by over prescriptive legislation about crash testing, type approval etc.

My mum had a cool piece of technology, a four wheel drive, four wheel steer wheelchair, which was made out of wood. The first gulf war destroyed the company that made them, because of unpaid debts for the mobile hospitals they supplied to the middle east.

Mind reading gizmo, nah don't want one, what use would I really have for it, because what is mind anyway that can be read, I need to read more complex patterns of intention and behaviour and consequences beyond what can be computed in real time except by some kind of quantum computer in folded space predicating upon a piece of fairy cake :)

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the use of reading facial expressions and manipulating situations. Give the device to the CIA or CSIS.


11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just don't give one to the USCIS: what if it can't read autistic immigrants?! we had a lot of anxiety that my husband would fail his immigration interviews because people who don't make a lot of eye-contact can be seen as looking "shifty" by NT interviewers. So we made sure to mention AS in all his paperwork, so they would know why. It seemed to work, as they didn't make any problem about that after all. For that matter, I think this could be a problem for immigrants, generally, as body language is so intertwined with cultures...

1:36 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home