Announcing “Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age” Under Contract with MIT Press

I’m delighted to share that I’ve recently signed a contract with MIT Press for my next book, titled “Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age.” Thank you to everyone who has supported me in working on this ambitious project over the past several years.

“Kids Across the Spectrums” will be the first book (academic or trade) to chronicle how kids on the autism spectrum—and across the socioeconomic spectrum—are succeeding and struggling with technology in their daily lives, often-marginalized experiences that I argue also speak to broader questions and concerns about what it means to be “social” with media in contemporary society and amidst a pandemic.

A black keyboard, unattached to a computer, sits atop a small child’s table in the living room of an autistic boy. The table is surrounded by an array of colorful objects, including a TV remote, picture books, and foam letters. (Photo by Meryl Alper)

Over recent decades, assumptions about autistic youth’s “natural” proclivity for technology have underpinned major investments into therapeutic robots and educational apps, as well as workforce training programs in the high-tech sector. At the other extreme, the idea that autistic youth prefer technology over human interaction has manifested in news reports that falsely imply a link between autism, violent video games, and aggressive behavior.

The book centers on the following questions: How are children and adolescents diagnosed with autism actually using media and technology in their everyday lives, of which very little is known? In turn, how might these uses inform more nuanced theoretical understandings of the social and technical worlds, as well as better implementation of technology in therapeutic and educational settings for kids on the spectrum?

Over the past seven years, up through the start of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, I conducted qualitative research in the homes of over 60 racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse autistic children ages 3- to 13-years-old in Boston and Los Angeles. Informed by ethical, communicative, and practical considerations, I interviewed adolescents, for example, about their technology likes and dislikes, consulted with caregivers regarding their hopes and concerns about remote schooling, and observed autistic children playing video games, chatting on FaceTime, and making YouTube videos.

I found, contrary to popular belief, that what autistic kids are doing with media is not necessarily radically different from their non-autistic counterparts. The experiences that they have though are less explained by their diagnosis alone and more by the intersections of their disability with other aspects of their identity. Youth on the spectrum differentially face significant social and health inequalities—including limited recreational opportunities, poor neighborhood safety, and challenges receiving appropriate therapeutic services—and these disparities spill over into their media use in impactful ways.

As I do not identify as a person on the autism spectrum, the book additionally incorporates the research of autistic scholars who focus on autism from a variety of disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological perspectives, as well as the popular writings of disability activists, journalists, and youth themselves, especially regarding their experiences with media and technology.

At its heart, “Kids Across the Spectrums” is about what it means to be “social” around and through technology. I argue that the lived experiences of autistic youth underscore the intricacies, anomalies, and expectations of the socially mediated world. Implicating autism in the complexity of the sociotechnical disrupts the use of autism a symbol through which social normativity is reinforced and opens up new theoretical possibilities within a hypermediated post-COVID social world.

One response to “Announcing “Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age” Under Contract with MIT Press

  1. Hi Meryl,

    Congratulations on the new book. It is really needed. A book that can site some of the research will be welcomed by parents and professionals. We write a lot about autism and digital technologies https://learningworksforkids.com/?s=autism, but are limited by the lack of evidence-based research.

    Best,

    Randy Kulman

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