Are computers and the Internet making people a little bit autistic?

Is technology making today's kids a bit autistic?

Posted Nov 30, 2008

One of the key components of Asperger's and autism is blindness to the nonverbal messages of other people. That blindness translates into a lack of emotional reciprocity, or responsiveness. After all, how can we respond if we don't receive the message?

You smile, and I gaze back with a flat expression. You make a big frown, and my expression doesn't change. That's a sign of autism. Do the same thing with a neurotypical person - someone who isn't autistic - and they will instinctively mimic your expressions.

Most of that ability to mimic others is innate - it's prewired in our brains and it emerges in early childhood. But what we do after the initial reaction is learned, and the way we integrate ourselves into society via nonverbal messages - that's almost all learned.

Autistic people are set apart because we don't get the emotional signals from others to trigger the response and learning process. Therefore, even though we can learn many social interactions, they don't come naturally to us. And we're always awkward because we're blind to the triggers that are automatic in neurotypical people.

I submit that something similar is happening with America's youth, for a different reason.

Today's kids spend more and more time in front of computers, and more and more of their communication is electronic. For every minute spent in front of a computer, a minute interacting with other people face to face is lost. As a result, today's kids are not learning the fine points of nonverbal interaction. They don't interact in person enough to acquire the skills.

They smile when someone smiles at them, because that's built in. However, they are not learning where to go from there. They are not learning the fine points of face to face interaction in our society. I say "our society" because the fine points of interpersonal interactions do differ between societies and cultures, and what's rude to you may be expected and normal behavior on the other side of the world. But without face-to-face contact, how can today's kids learn that?

Instead, many of today's young people learn the subtleties of text messaging and email. They say, I can be connected to the whole world electronically, and that's true in a sense. The problem is, that electronic connectedness may come at the expense of learning how to act on a date, or in a group, or at a party. And those are vital skills every young person needs.

I've spent much of my life trying to master face-to-face interaction with others. It's amazing to me, the idea that kids today may be casually disregarding a skill I've worked so hard to master. And it's such an insidious thing . . . they don't even see it happening. But it is. It's brain plasticity in action. Our brains build up the neural paths we use, and prune the ones we ignore. Yesterday's paths led to your friend next door, and the girl in Social Studies and maybe Uncle Bob. Tomorrow's paths lead to through the Xbox to some game enthusiast in China, and through the Blackberry to a like-minded person in Canada.

The physical connection, and the skill to develop and maintain it, is vanishing. Is the tradeoff worth it?

As a person with Asperger's, I have always had great success when communicating by writing, because my limited ability to respond to nonverbal cues does not matter in the written domain. You readers can't see my face . . . you only read my words. I'm grateful that I have the gift of writing in a clear and articulate manner. It's given me communication success that I could never have enjoyed otherwise.

But to me, written interaction is not enough. In my last blog post, I wrote of my sense of aloneness, and my desire to join the community of mankind. To me, that is only done in person. I assumed (perhaps wrongly) that everyone felt that way, but now I'm not sure . . .

Perhaps the integration of electronic communication into our lives has precipitated a new evolutionary step, and the way tomorrow's adults will engage one another is fundamentally different from the way I and everyone before did so.

I wonder how it will work out.

The idea of "computer enhanced evolution" makes me a little uneasy, and that's what we are experiencing today, as we integrate computer based communication into the very wiring of our brains. 

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