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Breaking Ground 99 - In Search of a Calm, Familiar Place, through Technology

by Ned Andrew Solomon, Director of Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute, Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities
The photo shows a young man, in a red shirt, sitting in a chair with his laptop. The caption reads, “Bernie finds calm in a noisy living room with guests.”

One of my earliest memories of my stepson, Bernie Lynette, was him sitting in his pajamas, staring straight into his computer screen on Christmas Day, 2009, his back to the rest of the world. We were at my parents-in-law’s home in Sevierville, Tennessee. It was crowded and noisy, and the living room and kitchen where we all gathered in proximity to Bernie was a bustle of activity. Food and coffee were being made; wrapped gifts were being placed into position; relatives from several cities and states were chatting about current events and memories. As important parts of the family tradition occurred throughout the day, my wife, Gina, would coax Bernie to come join us. But when it got to be too much, and he needed some respite, he would return to the sanctuary of his computer.

As director of the Council’s Partners in Policymaking program and Youth Leadership Forums, I had had a good bit of experience with adults and youth with autism. I had also been privy to the stories of countless parents describing the behaviors and challenges and gifts of their children on the spectrum. But those experiences were based on occasional encounters. None of them, and no class I could take or book I could read, could fully prepare me for being a 24/7/365 stepfather and co-caregiver to Bernie.

At 62, I must confess, I am only now getting better at some of this stuff. Although Gina, with “broken record” calmness, has gently hammered into my hard head over the years that I need to be more patient and understanding of Bernie’s challenges and behaviors, and more aware, respectful, and proud of his skills and talents, it can take some time for these lessons to sink in. It hasn’t been easy for me, and consequently, it hasn’t been easy for Bernie. As the adult in this equation, I have not always demonstrated maturity, when I simply didn’t get why Bernie was acting, and reacting, in a particular way.

I certainly didn’t get it during Christmas 2009. Wasn’t it rude for Bernie to be tuning everyone out, just plugged into his electronics? Aren’t people going to be insulted, and think we are lousy parents?

But Bernie wasn’t being rude. Bernie was simply surviving. He was doing what he could to get through this loud and busy occasion the best he knew how. He was, wisely and compassionately, retreating into the zone where he could focus on something familiar. Into something that he was exceptionally good at. Into something that didn’t put uncomfortable and confusing demands on him. Into that place where anxiety wouldn’t get the better of him.

He knew what to expect from his time on the computer. He was in control of his environment. And, truth be told? He really wasn’t missing much.

Bernie is 21 now. He is a computer whiz. He can take apart and put together a car, and most anything else that intrigues him. He has a business making art objects on his 3D printer. He is co-writing long-format fan fiction with someone on the Internet whom he has not met in person.

He is still, constantly, virtually every waking hour, plugged into a device. He carries it with him, like an appendage. His reasons are pretty much the same as they were for his 11-year-old self: technology is the zone where it’s calm, where’s he’s competent, where there are no demands, and where it’s familiar.

I know that Bernie is far from alone in this. We know many children and adults with autism, and many of them retreat into this calming electronics zone, to reduce, or at least manage, their anxiety. Several companies have come to the realization that individuals with autism can be perfect candidates for certain technology jobs. Many are brilliant, and able to focus for hours, or days, on a task or problem. (Bernie describes himself as a “finisher” - he will work on a challenge until it’s completed. Want to cause him unnecessary anxiety? Pull him away from that unfinished task.)

My stepson’s life and well-being have been saved by technology in another way. Bernie has a written expression disability, and his handwriting and his spelling leave a lot to be desired. Bernie used to joke that Microsoft’s spell check would just give up when trying to review something he had composed. But now, thanks to speech-to-text and word prediction programs, Bernie can write beautiful, perfect communications – and a lengthy fan fiction! He has always been smart enough to recognize when something is spelled or grammatically wrong – he just lacked the ability to fix it.

So yes, Bernie lives a lot of his day plugged in. It enables him to get from day to day. It gets him up in the morning. It keeps him from “losing it” when the world gets to be too much, as it often does. It allows him to communicate more effectively with his family, his friends, and a co-writer in some other part of the e-universe. Someday it will be how he makes his living.

And thankfully, for the Solomon/Lynette homefront, his stepfather is finally getting it.