One of the most miraculous things that can happen to us as adults is the moment when we become a parent, witnessing a human being entering the world and breathing a sigh of relief upon realizing that fragile little blessing possesses all his/her toes and fingers and appears as ordinary as any other child. In that instant, it seems they can at least start their lives without any physical disadvantages.
I really wasn’t aware that my daughter, Miranda, was any “different” than other children until she started kindergarten and began to exhibit behavior that caused her teachers to worry she might fall behind her peers developmentally.
Specifically, she exhibited a particular difficulty in focusing, plus an absolute terror of the automatic flush toilets the school system had just installed on her campus. The loud sound of the flushing, combined with her inability to control the timing of it, inspired panic attacks. Installing the auto-flush toilets made sense for hygiene purposes, but it sure complicated things for us. Once it became clear that her principal couldn’t beat my child out of her irrational fear – and believe me, that was the angriest I’ve ever been in my life – a psychologist was consulted.
First, the diagnosis was that convenient catch-all these days, ADHD. We tried medicating my daughter, and while I am sure a sedated version of her was less of a distraction to the rest of her class, the side effects were harsh and many problems remained. Next, the psychologist said she suffered from seizures, hence the aversion to loud noises. The verdict changed multiple times until a psychologist observed her during a school day and deemed Miranda to be “a textbook case of Asperger’s Syndrome.”
Children with Asperger’s have trouble understanding language in context. She struggled mightily in making friends and expressing herself in ways that seemed normal to her peers.
Simply looking a classmate in the eyes while speaking was a major challenge. Ironically, she was able to carry on conversations with adults with greater ease. Joining her for lunch at her school proved painful, for she would sit at the end of the table, disengaged from her classmates, compulsively making eccentric, repetitive motions. What interactions she had were met with bewildered looks since Miranda, lacking an internal social script, would overcompensate and try to entertain the children sitting next to her in a desperate attempt to make them like her. My heart would just break for her.
It was around that time I invested in my first tablet computer, the iPad 2, and discovered it to be a remarkable instrument for dealing with the struggles that go along with having a child diagnosed as an “Aspie.”
What makes the iPad so useful are apps that appeal to a sense of fun while simultaneously helping my daughter to develop the skills that she needs to acquire to reach her full potential as a thriving person. Technology isn’t a cure-all, but it does give parents a powerful tool that can be highly personalized.
The iReward app uses a chart and a system of stars awarded for encouraged behavior, the goal being to set habits and link positive reinforcement. Once she acquires a certain number of stars as a prize, Miranda gets a day trip to Six Flags or something equally grand.
The Social Stories app contains flash cards and videos to reinforce skills such as sharing, taking turns, communicating, and listening. Her teachers appreciate the effort I put into backing up their classroom rules. It also helps my daughter to have a visual schedule.
The Tom the Talking Cat app helped Miranda interact with another “person” by repeating anything she said in a funny, high-pitched voice as an animated feline moved accordingly.
My daughter has come a long, long way. Last fall, she transitioned to middle school with barely any hiccups at all. Making friends remains a struggle, but she continues to work on it and make improvements.
Her school structures her education to meet her unique needs, giving individual attention apart from the rest of her class, yet lacking most of the stigma traditionally associated with being a “special ed kid.” She receives speech, physical and occupational therapy to improve her handwriting and reinforce positive behaviors.
Miranda seems more and more like a teen every day. She usually has her iPhone going and earbuds plugged into her ear canals.
Like any modern parent, I worry about connecting her to the Internet, which puts the world at her fingertips – including the parts of it that I’d rather shield her from. I can only imagine what it must be like to have unfettered access to hardcore pornography as a modern boy or girl curious about things. I can only express my values, identify the content that is inappropriate or dangerous, monitor what my child is exposed to as much as possible, and explain things in a context. It is the job of a parent to steer a child in the right direction. With so much out there, you have to choose your battles.
She actually spends most of her time online playing the game Minecraft. To say she “enjoys” it may be a gross understatement. Her Asperger’s has always made her obsessive about a particular thing for 2-to-3-month-long periods, but her fixation on Minecraft seems to have lingering endurance because she gets to be creative, building a Lego-like virtual world and sharing a fascination of the game with other kids. Minecraft is a source of imaginative magic for her, like the iPad book created by storyteller Shilo Shiv Suleman.
I watch her rapidly assembling entire villages of cubed shaped structures, imagining the groundwork such games are laying for the next generation of engineers and architects, allowing them to imagine creation in three dimensions.
Like the children who taught themselves to use a PC in Sugata Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall project in remote Indian villages, my daughter the fifth grader has taught herself, mostly using YouTube as a resource, on how to play Minecraft at an almost expert level and now speaks of wanting to create a server for hosting shared game environments.
Watching the TED talk of psychologist Alison Gopnik, detailing a sophisticated intelligence-gathering and decision-making process that small children engage in, I couldn’t help but wonder how a brain on Asperger’s works. Miranda shows signs of being exceptionally talented in math. As I drove her to school this morning, she asked me whether I thought she should focus on finding a cure for breast- or lung-cancer.
Estimates suggest Asperger’s affects from two to six out of every 1,000 kids. It can be an inherited condition, which leads me to wonder whether I am an Aspie as well, for I endured my own struggles as a young schoolboy and still feel awkward in many social situations.
I am thankful for the technology that enables my daughter to increase her functional abilities, but I’m also cautious to put too much trust in it. In some ways, spending too much time sitting in front of a screen full of pixels robs a child of imaginative capacity, not to mention the way kids now miss out on the social interaction and life lessons gained from climbing trees and playing with toys outside.
A parent places his or her hopes and dreams in a child from the moment we learn about a pregnancy. From the moment we first glance on the faces of sons and daughters, our lives cease to be solely our own. We become bit players in their stories.
I’m thankful to live in a period of history when technology assists us in helping our children achieve their fullest potential.