In a recent (June 2013) short and informative interview published in The Atlantic, James Fallows (JF) asks Linda Stone (LS) to explain what she means by such phrases as “continuous partial attention” and “attention strategy.”
Many of us who are autistic have given much thought to the concepts outlined in the interview. For me, it rang a lot of bells, so when the word “autism” appeared I wasn’t surprised.
LS: …Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.
JF: What you’re describing sounds like a society-wide autism.
LS: In my opinion, it’s more serious than autism. Many autistic kids are profoundly sensitive, and look away [from people] because full stimulation overwhelms them. What we’re doing now is modeling a primary relationship with screens, and a lack of eye contact with people. It ultimately can feed the development of a kind of sociopathy and psychopathy.
JF: I’m afraid to ask, but is this just going to get worse?
LS: I don’t think so…
She shows an amazing (and unusual) understanding of how autistic kids (and adults, btw) have a different strategy for paying attention. For many of us, a glance suffices to give us all the information we need, and a full-bore gaze will provide too much information and create in us an inability to do other simultaneous tasks that also require our attention, like listening or speaking.
For more on this, see my post Gaze Aversion: An Autistic Adaptation.
Interestingly, this topic came up in an all-day seminar on autism that I attended last week at Brandeis University. One of the speakers was David Tesini, a professor of Pediatric Dentistry at Tuft University. He described some of the challenges of providing dental care to autistic children, and said that he felt it important to have direct contact and communication with the patient, and not to have conversations relayed through the parent or other care-giver. He said one of the ways he would know a kid was paying attention was if he could get the child to look at him.
One of the members of the audience challenged Dr. Tesini on this, saying that her autistic son had explained to her that eye contact can be distracting. I later told him that his objective (having direct communication) was excellent and much desired by autistic people, but that there are probably other ways for him to measure the level of attention he is getting. He was very appreciative of the feedback we gave him, and promised to learn more and adjust his practice and teaching.
From understanding comes acceptance.