Monday, December 12, 2011

If You Could Fly

The other day, Iris made a play-date with her little friend David. They would spend time together playing music, reading books, baking cookies and whatever else came to mind...

I sit at my desk coding. It's one of those amazing afternoons where I get to not deal with people. I'm translating the new subcutaneous heart-attack detection algorithm from Visual Basic (the language we use to prototype the system) into C++ (the language we use to implement the system on an implantable medical device or IMD).

The task is a bit more challenging than basic translation. The prototype takes full advantage of all the power you get with the latest and greatest PCs. The IMD has less processor power than a Commodore-64.

To make things more challenging, I have to take into account how my code will consume battery. The IMD needs to run for four years on a single battery (without a recharge). If not careful, I could easily write software that drains the battery in an eighth the time.

I'm in heaven.

As I consider how to efficiently implement a slope-of-the-slope calculation without floating-point capabilities I hear Iris' truck roar up the driveway and into the parking lot. A minute or so later, I feel a barometric change as the front door swings open and Iris and David bound into the house. The house shakes as the door slams shut (Iris has been into weight lifting lately) and just in case I'd missed their arrival, Iris calls out, "We're here!"

I shout from my office. "Welcome home, baby! Hello, David!"

Patter, patter, patter. David (who's never been to my office), rambles down the steps, races to my desk, and says, "iPhone" as he grabs mine.

For perspective's sake, I'll tell you that I'm blazing fast with computers and the like; when it comes to user interfaces, I can fly. Yet, I can never imagine being as fast as David is with my iPhone. Within seconds, he flips through all my applications, calling them out as he goes. Next, he jumps through all the settings, again calling them out.

I almost miss the part where David starts to delete the applications that he deems unnecessary. As I see the icons start to jiggle and his index finger torpedoing toward one of the circled X's, I divert the missile with the top of my hand as I palm the screen and say, "David, this is my iPhone. I use it for my work. I need those applications. You can play with my iPhone, but not if you delete applications. If you do, then I won't let you play with it. OK?"

I press the iPhones return button, the icons settle. As if to make sure he understood me, David sets them into motion again and looks at me as his index finger targets another circled-X.

"Wow, he's really fast", I think as I just barely head him off.

"David, remember what I said about deleting applications?"

David acknowledges me by pressing the return button. The icons quiesce. He heads back to the phone's settings and begins a little ritual. Each time he presses an icon or text-link, he calls out its name and then circles the room once running at a full clip.

"Airplane Mode, Off!"

Patter, patter, patter.

"WiFi, On!"

Patter, patter, patter.

"Choose a Network"

Patter, patter, patter.

On one of his circuits, David spies the settings icon on the display of my Mac Tower. He sees the keyboard which unlike most desktop computers has a trackpad in the center. He glides the cursor over the settings icon and clicks.

"System Preferences!"

Patter, patter, patter.


Patter, patter, patter.

David's ease with the iPhone and the Mac are remarkable. When it comes to trying out new system, you've got two types of people: the ones who click quickly, but haphazardly and the ones who click slowly and deliberately. You rarely see someone who clicks quickly and deliberately and you never seen anyone as fast as David.

This morning, I've been thinking about David's finesse with my iPhone and Mac. I imagine that the activity would be considered an example of "stimming" (short for self stimulation), an effect of his being on the autism spectrum. Common examples of stimming include rocking back and forth, head-banging, finger-flicking, spinning in circles, humming, repeating words or sounds and complex body contortions.

Stimming helps you to regulate your sensory systems, to quiesce them when they get over stimulated. People may stim to relieve discomfort and stress, but they may also stim to express emotion.

Pretty much everyone stims from time to time: tap your feet, crack your knuckles, wring your fingers, twiddle your thumbs, get lost in the ticking of a clock, count the tiles on a floor or in a ceiling). However, the stims of people on the autism spectrum are often more pronounced and may seem downright strange. Therefore, we often discourage stims or try to replace them with other, more desirable behaviors.

Yet, as I watched David racing through the icons with such confidence, precision and skill, it was as though he were flying. Sure, I can see that you might want to discourage David from pressing icons, calling out their names and running in circles around the room. You might want to get him to do something else, something more socially engaged or educational or productive. But why would he want that?

Imagine if you could fly. You race through obstacle courses without hesitation or even slowing down to take a corner. You get from home to work in seconds instead of hours. You feel an unparalleled sense of freedom and empowerment.

However, you're strange. People feel uncomfortable around you. No one else flies; you shouldn't fly. Why don't you just forget about flying and walk like everyone else?

But why would you ever want to walk, when you can fly?

Happy Monday,

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