Dr. Meryl Alper on Screens and Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age
Many of our kids spend a LOT of time engaging on screens and with technology, and it feels like this is an ever-changing, and fast-changing landscape, and one that can be hard to stay on top of. Whether we’re talking about assistive technology, videos, games, or social media, these forms of media continue to offer new ways of interacting, developing relationships, and even exploring identity, and this has added to the complexity of raising neurodivergent kiddos. So I invited Dr. Meryl Alper, a researcher on the social and cultural implications of communication technologies with a focus on disability, digital media, and children and families’ tech use to join me to talk about how we should be thinking about our kids’ relationship with screens and tech.
I reached out to Meryl after reading her new book, Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age, which explores the often-misunderstood technology practices of young autistic people, as well as what it means to be “social” in a hypermediated society. So that’s what we get into: the factors that influence a child’s relation to media, how digital media is creating spaces for kids to develop their identities online, and what we – parents, schools – should be doing to better educate kids on safely interacting with online communities and new technologies. We also talked about fandoms and how they have become a part of identity and belonging development, and why every parent needs to spend time understanding how their children are using and consuming media.
About Dr. Meryl Alper
Dr. Meryl Alper is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, where she researches the social and cultural implications of communication technologies, with a focus on disability, digital media, and children and families’ tech use. Dr. Alper is the author of Digital Youth with Disabilities (MIT Press, 2014) and the award-winning Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (MIT Press, 2017). Her latest book, Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age (MIT Press, 2023), explores the often-misunderstood technology practices of young people on the autism spectrum, as well as what it means to be “social” in a hypermediated society.
Dr. Alper also draws on nearly 20 years of professional experience in the children’s media industry as a researcher, strategist, and consultant with organizations such as Sesame Workshop, PBS KIDS, Nickelodeon, and Disney. Prior to joining the faculty at Northeastern, Dr.Alper earned a Ph.D. and M.A. from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.She also holds a B.S. in Communication Studies and History from Northwestern University, as well as a certificate in Early Childhood Education from UCLA.
Things you’ll learn from this episode
- Why representation in media is crucial for autistic children to develop a sense of identity and belonging
- How technology can provide opportunities for connection and community for autistic children
- Special considerations parents and educators could keep in mind regarding online safety for neurodivergent children
- The importance of advocating for media literacy education that is catered to neurodivergent children
- Why understanding the individual needs and experiences of neurodivergent children is essential when making decisions about their technology use
Resources mentioned for autistic kids and screens
- Kids Across the Spectrums: Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age by Meryl Alper (via MIT Press website)
- MIT Press open access version of Kids Across the Spectrum (digital only)
- Wonder by R.J. Palacio
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Hey, Meryl, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you. Excited to be here.
Yeah, I’m excited to have this conversation. This is super interesting. I think it ties together so many things that we talk about in this parenting community. And you are an expert in such a unique way. Like we’ve talked about screen time from how to form healthy screen time habits and things like that, but we haven’t really kind of gotten into what’s really going on, especially with autistic kids and their use of media and technology. So, before we get into it, I want to talk all about your book. But before we do that, can you just kind of give us a little bit more of your own personal introduction into the research and the work that you do and why you’re so drawn to doing that work?
Yeah, so I started off my professional life in the children’s media industry. When I say professional life, I mean back in college, I worked on one of the first National Science Foundation grants to study digital media and kids. It was a new thing then, this is back in the early 2000s, and had the real gift of starting off having an internship that first summer, second summer in college in the education and research department at Sesame Workshop. So you sort of are starting with the best and the brightest and that really infused everything that I’ve done going forward, thinking about how do we make the best possible media, the best possible choices around media for kids, knowing that they’re going to be spending time with it. So how do we make that a fulfilling and rich experience? And not only that, but in the spirit of Sesame, I think, also thinking about who gets to see themselves on screen, who’s a part of the audience, really as inclusive as possible. And so when I started my PhD, I knew that I wanted to do something research-oriented and that to go further, that’s what I was going to need to do. So after my time at Sesame, I then also worked at Disney Channel on the more business side of things and for Nickelodeon. Also as a researcher on some of their preschool shows that all of them had a real diversity focus, I wanted to take that into my PhD. But of course, TV wasn’t just the only, at that point now, this is in 2010, the iPad had come out. And I knew that was going to absolutely change all of the different ways that kids were consuming, creating, sharing content, and doing so at even younger ages. What I didn’t realize until I started doing more research was it wasn’t just about age, but also about developmental stage and ability, because you now have the capacity where you didn’t have to, if you were gonna be a kid using a computer, mind you, smartphones had existed at that time, but now you don’t need a keyboard, you don’t need a mouse. All of the sort of fine motor skills, all of the sort of planning that you would have needed to be able to make choices or to affect a computer, those have now been drastically lowered.
So that just, but then I realized also at that point, here I have all this background really in thinking about diverse learners and different kinds of backgrounds, but I had minimal training, I would say, I guess, in thinking about developmental differences. While I was working at Nickelodeon, I had in sort of off hours and weekends gotten a certificate in early childhood education from UCLA. But even then I think that there was a sort of separation out of sort of special or different learners. It was one day maybe that we spent in the course of a curriculum, but nothing that at that point for me, maybe I wasn’t even looking for those classes at that time, but I felt like I didn’t have that background. So when I started spending more time taking classes, especially at USC, USC is where I went to get my PhD, has an amazing occupational therapy department. And I started to just take any classes that had technology in the title or that were gonna expose me to that.
And I came to realize there’s this whole wide world of technology that in one sense was separate from typically developing kids. I mean, you’re thinking about special adaptive software, switches, hardware for how you might manipulate a computer. But then also here again, where these mobile devices that it wasn’t really clear. And also there was a lot of tension around, are these devices that are either for school or for assistive purposes, or are they for fun? And it turns out they’re really for both, but people trying to really spend a lot of time separating those out. I’d focused my dissertation on non-speaking kids with a range of developmental disabilities. So some of those were kids with Down syndrome, some with kids with Ungleman’s syndrome, but also a lot of those kids were kids on the autism spectrum. So for that work, I was very interested in that particular kind of use and really the claims about this technology is so liberating, it gives people voices. And my work I found actually, it really depends because it’s technology and that comes with a whole host of other strings attached to it. But I was really motivated, I think, by the fact that here’s all these other things that the same technology can do. But nobody’s looked at that either. They’re using…
iPads and I’ve looked at this one specific purpose, but not all these other ones. And when I went to go look at the research, it seemed to me that autistic and I should say also really it’s neurodivergent kids more broadly because there’s also such an overlap between kids who maybe they get diagnosed with one thing, in which we’ve talked about this, they get one diagnosis and another turns out they have both. And then that changes everything in terms of the kind of supports. But I realized that your neurodivergent children’s uses of media and technology hadn’t been given the same kinds of treatment as typically developing kids in my field’s really rich tradition of the field of communication, kind of social scientists interested in what kids are, again, kind of getting out of media and how it can be made better, but it hadn’t really been given the same energy and resources as typically developing kids and trying to understand their successes and struggles growing up in the digital age. You know, I say, you know, I, so I, in terms of personal connections, you know, I, I don’t identify as being neurodivergent. I’m not like the mom or a sibling of neuro, my mom, but not a, not I know of at this point of neurodivergent kids. But to me, it’s about inclusion more broadly and making inclusion more inclusive, but not just for inclusion sake. Because I think also studying these children’s experiences make this field of media and technology even better.
Mm hmm. Yeah, it’s fascinating to hear. I love hearing people’s kind of stories. And also, we’re gonna have to check in afterwards, because I used to work for Nickelodeon, and I used to consult for Disney Channel. And so we probably have a lot of mutual friends. So we’ll spare our listeners from that. But I want to get into your book, Kids Across the Spectrums, Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age. For me, you reached out to me on LinkedIn, I was like, Oh, yeah. I need to read that book because just, you know, before I got into it and started reading, I realized that I really have such little actual information about what’s true, right? Like I think we hear these, you know, myths or ideas or stereotypes, you know, and that it can be really dysregulating or it can be super regulating or this is where you find your people. It just seems like there’s a lot of generalizations out there. And so you really went into it. So tell us about the book broadly and how you approached researching it and what you were really hoping to do through it.
Yeah, so I you know, while I don’t have the same personal experiences in terms of parenting, I certainly have had, through the conversations that I had during my dissertation, and then just keep, anybody that I know that I had mentioned talking about this always has stories for me, if they themselves are a parent too. And, you know, as somebody who had read, you know, all of this and knows and done research on neurotypical kids, knowing that there’s bound to be this seed of okay, there’s some shared experiences. It’s not everything that autistic or neurodivergent kids are doing with media and technology. That’s going to be radically different. Everybody is using, everybody’s watching TV. That’s also one of these myths I think people don’t realize because I’ve got social media, digital media. TV is still across the board. The top time spent with media is television. Television takes different forms, but still, number one. Everybody’s watching YouTube. Not everybody is on TikTok or Snapchat, but increasing numbers are. So I was really motivated and drawn to the fact that, okay, we need to really separate things out. If there are these similarities, what are the differences? And what do those differences stem from?
So the big, I think for me, the biggest takeaway from, well, first of all, let me sort of get to how I then approach doing that research. So I am somebody who has training in a bunch of different methodologies, be it surveys or like focus groups with parents or, um, sort of designing technologies with and for kids. But I, as a tool, think that there’s a real value in surveying parents too, but spending time in families spaces, um, especially for this population when we’re, it’s not just the media, the device, or the content on the device. But the physical space that kids choose to spend time in, or that families have curated or crafted around their children. It’s just as important, I think, to me as the device and as the ritual and the space around it. So ethnography for me was the mode of choice. So over the course of, we’re talking about, 2013 is when the data for my dissertation that wasn’t included in the dissertation and my first book starts.
So about 2013, through right on the cusp of the pandemic, so spring of 2020 and a little bit prepped in there which, in the conclusion of the book, I kind of, it’s the coda, where I think like around the time of when the book came out, it’s like, oh, the pandemic is changing everything. And I think it has reoriented things, but then some things are back to how they were. And we’re living in this time where it’s both and. But yeah, so from about seven courses, seven years, going into people’s houses and interviewing parents there, observing kids, you know, doing the things that they like to do with media. Cause I don’t want to put observed kids in a position where they are, yes, having a meltdown or dysregulated. I want to see the things you like to do or the things you regularly do at the times of day that you regularly do them. I don’t want to disrupt your routine because for some families that’s really important to not veer from, but also to the extent that I could interview the kids themselves as much as possible. Now, that was not, I was not able to do that in a lot of cases. Some cases though I were kids who had access to who were non-speaking, for example, who had the ability to communicate through AAC or augmented and alternative communication technologies or through like spelling or through typing, able to interview them.
A lot of kids who just frankly have been, this is what I talked about in my last book, just failed by insurance, healthcare, education and not having the communication tools that they need to be able to do something like an interview with me. So in those cases, more observation leaning. And so, you know, so what I found, I think a big takeaway is that, yes, there are these differences, absolutely between neurodivergent and neurotypical kids, but those differences are not just because of neurodivergence. It’s not just because of autism. It’s not just because of ADHD. When you take another step back and you look at, again, this was, I looked at, I spent time with the families of over 60 kids. And some of those a lot, there’s a good portion of those that were siblings. And I talk about that in the book, but again, it wasn’t just because one group is neurotypical and one group isn’t. The backgrounds of kids on the spectrum, you know, race, ethnicity, gender, class, culture, religion, immigration status.
All of these, and you could say the same of neurotypical kids, shape their experiences as neurodivergent, as neurodivergent media users. So the question of can their parents afford the internet? And if not, what other choices are they making? What devices are they using? What kinds of physical space do they have at home to move around in? So talking about dysregulation and media use, is this a cramped apartment where you know, kids, you know, the ways in which they are watching are physically, you know, constrained. And so the time spent can really get them out of sorts in a way that maybe a kid who’s roaming around and, you know, from a number of feet away is peripherally watching the screen, but they’re able to get that sensory stimulation at the same time that they’re watching. And maybe also that means that their parent from this open space is able to watch at the same time versus a parent in these closed cramped spaces can’t view at the same time. So the parent can’t be as engaged. So really it’s like multidimensional calculus in your head thinking about, this kid is watching the same thing as some other kid, but this is a vastly different background. To what extent do their parents believe in the use of media as a reward for good behavior or something to be restricted as a punishment or withheld to elicit a desired behavior. That speaks to, I think, some different overall parenting values around reward and restriction, which you know, is absolutely related to culture and one’s own upbringing and stuff. So yeah, so that is something that really, you know, came to me.
But you know, the main areas that I talk about in the book are, you know, again, where are these similarities and differences? I break it down into three main areas of cultural belonging, social relationships, and physical embodiment. So these three different areas, and each of those has two chapters, the cultural belonging, where do you belong in this world? That’s related to, I have a whole chapter on identity in the role of media in identity of being neurodivergent, a whole chapter on learning, because you think about school as the main space where you learn how to belong, the rules of society and interacting with others. What does learning look like in relation to media for these young people in terms of social relationships, one on family dynamics and parenting, one on friends and friendship and media in all of that. And then in the physical embodiment part, which maybe in those chapters, if I was doing a general ethnography of kids in media use wouldn’t have maybe shown up in those books, but one chapter just on emotions and the ways that media plays a role in emotional, not just a kind of regulation or managing emotions, but understanding what emotions are, recognizing them in others, the ways that media can affect emotions and emotional development, and then a whole chapter on the senses and sensory development and thinking about media as sensory relief, as sensory stressor, and all these different ways in which when we say the senses, what do we even mean by that?
Mm-hmm. There’s so much that we could get into and all of these things are so relevant and juicy. And so, and your book, you are clearly a researcher and you really, you’re into this stuff, which I love, and it comes through in the book, but also your book’s really readable, which isn’t always the case when you’re reading something that’s providing a lot more, that’s data driven and so research driven. So I just wanna put that out there for listeners. And I wanna get into some of the concepts. Okay. The first chapter of your book is talking about identity. And I thought that was such a great place to start. It’s something we’ve talked a little bit on the show when we had Devorah Heitner talking about her new book growing up in public and what’s happening when our kids are forming their identity online. I’m curious to know if there was something that really surprised you or struck you when you were exploring how autistic kids develop and create an identity through their use of tech.
Yeah, so one thing I think that’s important to, because I, you know, the social, the age range that I was focused on for this book, and I can talk a little bit later about what my newer work is, but, you know, I was focused on three to 13. So when we talk about media and technology, the extent to which these kids are online and networked is quite different than thinking about the sort of 14 and up group. So thinking about identity or community or belonging through media and technology.
A lot of this is mass media. A lot of this is what do you read in books? What do you see on TV or in movies? And yes, also what communities are you a part of through your gaming or through some of these other kinds of ways in which kids can be online and in a sort of, just developmentally appropriate. I think that term sometimes means one thing it can mean another, but at least in a way that is accessible to you. So I think that was not surprised, but when I read a lot about identity and kids in media, that a lot of it does go more into the kind of network side of things. But important to keep in mind for this group, yes, absolutely the ways in which for some of these kids, the platform scratch, which is MIT, moderated kind of community for kids to learn how to code and to develop games. And it’s also, I think it’s a very positive in terms of, I’m not kind to some other platforms in this book, but as a space that is moderated and is regulated and kids are able to connect with other kids who maybe have a form of kind of a difference and they can find one another in this way, but they’re centered around creation. So yeah, that can be a fantastic space for kids to express who they are and the ways in which their their understanding of their neurodivergence might not come out in the ways that an adult might frame it or describe it, but coming out relative to how they consume content or their preferences for creativity or the kinds of characters that they are drawn to in fiction and maybe creating a game around that or a digital creation or something.
But also, another thing that I guess would surprise me is, we think about representation in media. And for a lot of these kids, there are, I think there are nowadays, it’s a real blossoming. There’s so many, nothing is perfect. There’s lots of different things for kids to be able to draw on and see, oh, that is me reflected. And the power of that in terms of your self-confidence, in terms of your feeling like you belong is so important.
But for these kids, there’s still a really, a really long, long way to go. But I think what’s surprising is even in the absence of that, even the absence of characters where you’re like, wow, that’s a lead character in this TV show or in this book that has the same experience that I do. Kids pick up on if it’s not my exact diagnosis even, or that character doesn’t have a diagnosis, but there’s something about them that I connect with, that they will glom onto that. They will find that thing and that thing, they are able, these are kids, you know, kids, you know, on the spectrum, some also with ADHD, able to articulate what it is about that character or that book that they do see themselves in.
So, you know, the book, I wrote, there’s a whole portion about the book, Wonder, in that where, again, this is not a character that shares the same diagnosis, but kids who would script, this is from the movie and the book, but it’s script lines that would talk about this book with a real passion and only in talking with their parents to know that they’d been bullied and had these really terrible experiences in school to know that, oh, that is why this kid is able to tell me so much about this book and not so much about a lot of other things or not even to communicate clearly around them, but this they really have a conviction or a passion about says that there’s a power in, they will find anything that they can find to identify with. That doesn’t mean that people are off the hook for creating characters or storylines that are inclusive, that speak to a wide variety of neurodivergent experiences, but kids are crafty.
And there’s a kind of resilience in finding those characters, even ones that we can think about, you know, like Sheldon, for example, in Big Bang Theory. Not a lot of kids were watching that, but there were some who did come out, were like, oh, this character has some similarities to me, but that’s not a character in the show that he’s not named as being autistic. There’s not a, it’s more implicit than explicit. But also thinking about creation tools, it isn’t just consuming, but it’s also creating. And so kids using whatever digital resources, if it’s like PowerPoint, Google Slides presentations of making books about yourself, or for, again, some of these more kids with more kind of sophisticated skills or talents, you know, like books and kind of self-publishing books. There’s more tools than ever at kids’ capacity to both, yes, find other kids, but to do some of that internal sort of private work with the media that’s available to them.
Would fandom kind of be part of that identity development as well? Because I know that there are kind of these subcultures, you know, of different media properties or characters that really attract autistic kids.
Yeah, yeah, I know that absolutely came out and I’d say that it’s there, there are pros and cons, but I’m thinking of one kid from that I spent time with who was really into, I think a lot of kids are into Percy Jackson and you know character that you know the kid was saying oh you know this character, you know these jokes about how he’s you know, Vulcan, that there’s like a Spock reference and this character is different and it’s an, I know it and it’s an in-joke, but other kinds of fandoms too that the kids find that there’s a connection with. But at the same time, I get into this a little bit in my emotions sort of chapter, but this can also be very stressful, especially for kids who have like a real high the empathy or the way that they pick up on others’ emotions and then can internalize those emotions in a way that can be highly stressful for them, that these can, in a way that maybe adults or people who aren’t in this space don’t realize that the stakes can feel very high because you have people who have competing passions or dueling passions. And so these can be spaces that are full of interest and possible connection, but can also create a lot of stress for kids in ways that might not be so readily apparent to somebody who’s not just a parent who, a parent, but if you’re not a parent who I guess is themselves a part of these kinds of communities or, you know, intense focused passions around topics that might not also realize how stressful it can be and at the same time hard to separate yourself from them because again, if this is an area that you’re very passionate about and it motivates you, it includes all of these things.
So fascinating. I wanna talk about a few other myths. So one of the myths that I think is out there is, and is true for all kids, right? That technology is isolating kids. And maybe autistic kids or neurodivergent kids are more strongly attracted to engaging with technology. That might be a myth right then and there. But what did you find in terms of, let me restate that, how would you respond to someone who is concerned that technology is further isolating kids who may already feel others or alienated by the environments that they’re in.
Yeah, it’s a very popular question and it’s so layered. So I think I would say to any one parent from the get-go that it isn’t just about whatever parenting choices you are or are not making in your home. Any parent who you talk to would always say of a neurodivergent kid that even if they had really great programs for their kid to do after school or over the summers, they had to do so much work to make that happen, or they had to put a lot of money into that to make that happen. So thinking about just time spent, you know we talk about screen time, time spent with media, time spent doing other things is not, that’s not always so readily available for these kids and families.
So, or even just the time spent with effective therapies that might help your child with emotional regulation or with, you know, planning or with or for some kids, I talked to, I think, a number of kids and families that were dealing with trauma related to experiences that they’d had in school. And so all of that, again, wraps around time spent with media. So we think about social isolation, what other kinds of connections to community or connections to friend-making does a child have? And maybe that’s through siblings, maybe that’s through the efforts of parents. But or maybe and maybe that’s through a school There’s I think a double-edged sword, but you know Are they in a classroom where they are the only child that they know of to be neurodivergent? Um, or are they in a classroom full of other kids that are like that? Um, and to what extent are the parents connected or I definitely talked to parents who you know, they only knew that just their child in the classroom was neurodivergent, but not others, and they felt isolated as a parent from the other parents. So the kid maybe felt included, but the parents themselves felt isolated because they felt like the other parents knew and were not including their child on that basis. So there’s the real, I mean, there’s inclusion, it doesn’t just always mean wonderful rainbows, you know, rainbows and unicorns, there is work of that So when it comes to media and all that connection, thinking about gaming in particular, and this is especially during the pandemic, what I picked up on at least at the start of the pandemic.
This is true for typically developing kids. For boys in particular, gaming itself is where there’s a lot of hanging out happening that maybe, I mean, gaming has been around for a long time, the afterschool in-person gaming. But at a time when people are so over-scheduled or people don’t live necessarily right next door to one another to go over to one another’s houses, the remote space of gaming, the socially networked gaming is another really important, especially for boys kind of social space.
Now, not all of these kids though, especially neurodivergent kids are necessarily doing that social gaming, but for some who are, it is a really important step for them in belonging and being connected. Now, for ones who aren’t necessarily gaming with kids that they know, are we thinking about the kind of platforms where those might be happening? They’re the heightened risk of being the victim of aggression and being sort of made to feel lesser than is a real concern and that’s something, you know It wasn’t kind to some platforms in the book I think there’s a lot to be said about Roblox and as a platform that to me I consider to be like the YouTube Of gaming and we don’t just let kids do whatever on YouTube or we shouldn’t I don’t think there’s a lot that is not for kids in a really explicit way. Like Roblox when I was I don’t know, this has been cleaned up, but there were games where you could simulate dating. And there was definitely adults intermixing with kids on these in these games or games where high super violent, like prison breakout games, I saw one was watching two autistic brothers playing and it was like, like somebody like shivving a think Roblox, it’s blocky, it’s like Minecraft. It’s not like Minecraft.
But parents don’t always know these things. So, so those and the kinds of then experiences that because they’re very immersive, because they’re those kinds of experiences, they, they are highly exciting. And when you’re more excited, you’re more likely to be gripped and, you know, staying on screen because your, you know, heart rate, your all of the sort of interception is telling you to sort of be right there. So I think that when it comes to the social dynamics, we have to think about the bigger picture, how connected are these kids more broadly, but also thinking about the ways in which, and to think about games in particular, it’s never just about games anymore, because games are connected to all these other platforms. YouTube, I mean, YouTube is a space where you don’t have to play, you can just watch or even, you know, Discord or sorry, Twitch. You know, you can peripherally experience. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing because kids are also picking up gaming tips.
But I saw a lot of kids for whom social interaction might’ve been scared, like intimidating or a lot, but watching other gamers talk to one another or interact wasn’t a replacement, I don’t think, for being social, but it was a way to learn and observe other people socially interacting in a way that you can pause, you can step away, you can pay closer attention to, you can observe. So the observation of watching people, gamers, kind of socially interact, I think that it can be more of a building block. It’s not either or, it’s not you’re either being social in a game or not. You’re either being social, not playing a game, offline or not. But these other spaces where it can be more a kind of scaffolding, but that requires parents to, I guess, know what their kids are watching and talking, which not every parent is really so excited to spend how many hours watching gamers play with one another. But it’s something that kids do on playdates that I saw and talked with autistic kids about that being a thing that they like to do. So I think that social content can take a lot of different forms and it’s important to think about any of that really truly within the individual context of your child.
I really appreciate how you just recognize that every family is different and is navigating different cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic status, their own lived experience as a child, and the way that they were raised, and financial implications. There’s just so much in here. And it helps me to think about, especially in, you know, especially when considering for many people, this seems like a black and white issue, right, that either technology use is good for kids or it’s not, you know. So I guess, as a way to kind of start to wrap up for parents who are listening, and just again, we’ve only just scratched the surface on what’s in the book, we can’t go through the whole book today. But is there something that you would want parents listening who are really struggling with how to navigate their neurodivergent or their autistic kids’ relationship with technology to consider, to think about as they make decisions about how to show up for the child that they have in this digital age?
Yeah, I guess I would break it down a little bit by, you could break it down by a lot of different things by gender, but I think in terms of age ranges. So I mentioned that, you know, this book was for kids three to 13 and that I’m also doing, I’m doing work now that is focused on a little bit, older people on the spectrum. But so I would think I would think about kids who are, maybe in this kind of three to eight range, thinking about screens and in particular again, like TV as this space, I would take advantage of the fact that there are going to be coming up more shows, at least I know personally, based on my current work with PBS Kids, more shows that are gonna be showing an array of neurodivergent young people and that is a real resource.
I would say that it’s also a resource for parents of typically developed, you know, neurotypical kids for you to also develop empathy and understanding. But those I think are gonna be real potential opportunities for having some of these more complex conversations that are harder, kids, a lot of these kids need very concrete examples as the starting off, jumping off point at least for having these kinds of conversations. So I would say to be on the lookout for those, not that happened all the time with them, because for example Sesame Street did introduce its Julia, it’s Autistic Muppet. And I talk about in the book a little bit of like the pros, not pros and cons, but the ways in which that, the promise of that, I don’t know how fully fulfilled it has been in the lives at least of other neurodivergent kids in terms of, yeah, I mean, media can only do so much, I guess, but so I think there’s a jumping off point for there.
The first sort of this then like age of, of sort of nascent gamers or interest in sort of YouTube around some of this other, you know, more mature things. I think it’s a really important time where media literacy as a term gets thrown around as meaning a lot of things and hard to pin down. But I would really think about and ask in your kid’s school to what extent that’s happening and to what extent that is that like education around that is happening and to what extent that education is catered or specific to your own child’s neurodivergence. So this happens to researchers all the time. I feel like I wrote a fantastic grant application to study media literacy education for neurodivergent kids, didn’t get grant funded. Still thinks it’s very worth understanding because for some of these kids, there might be, there’s some research that, initial research that shows some neurodivergent kids might be more risk averse actually when it comes to online, like a stranger danger stuff or you know, not getting yourself into situations potentially, but then at the same time, not as having as great an understanding of privacy settings and security.
So the ability to block somebody, to not contact you, that might take a lot more walking through cognitively to be able to prevent yourself from being in some of those riskier situations. So yeah, it’s not as if these kids, everybody’s so vulnerable and needs protecting, might have some real strengths, but at the same time, the way that the technology is designed might not be in your kid’s favor to be able to prevent those situations from happening. So I think it’s really kind of asking your school, is there this teaching going on? Because it isn’t something that I believe. I don’t think that’s asking too much in this hyper saturated world, but I would also want to know to what extent is any of this being crafted or catered to kids who might not fully understand some who might get it, but some who might not. And, and especially around again the design of technologies like tick tock that are absolutely designed to not have you leave. It’s not created that way. It’s not, there’s nothing as, you’re not getting every third video, hey, take a break, put me down. That is not happening. You have to be the person that yourself says that, or there’s, you know, obviously, all these tools now available to parents, like the Screen Time app and Apple devices, to try to engender that in your kid. But of course, that doesn’t smoothly transition your kid out necessarily. It just shuts off and that’s it, which itself can cause a meltdown. Anyway, so I would say for that middle grade, you know, it’s not just on you. Teachers have a lot going on and isn’t just about individual teachers. It happens at the district level, the state level, whatever. But why is there not more education around that is catered to these kids? I think it needs to be more fully discussed.
And I can get more into the older kids stuff. But I think it’s that there’s a lot going on that can also be kids feeling like they belong to a community. And so there’s potentially a whole host of other, there is a whole host of other potential negative effects, but there might also be that happening too, which isn’t a bad thing either.
Well, what I’m thinking as you’re talking is that you have such a long career ahead of you because this is just going to become more and more relevant, I think, as technology evolves and our reliance on it as humans continues to grow and our understanding of neurodivergent, the neurodivergent experience expands. So I congratulate you on choosing a really interesting focus for your work. It’s awesome. And I look forward to following you and seeing what you do next. Um, so where can listeners learn more about you and your book?
So I will say, thankful to the folks at MIT Press who have made a digital version of the book freely available. So if you’re somebody who wants a physical book, do have to purchase that. But if you’re somebody who is cool with PDF scrolling on one of your devices, book is freely available. And it’s my real hope that circulates kind of word of mouth, I suppose. Because again, it’s written in an accessible way and wanting to speak yes to parents, but to therapists, to clinicians, to tech folks, that this is something that they may think they know a lot about. And I’m not saying that they don’t, but there’s a lot more when you scratch the surface to dig into. I’m on LinkedIn as Meryl Alper. My website is merylalper.com. And I have links to some other press that I’ve done, articles, I recently talked to some folks in Parents Magazine, Yahoo, about a whole host of things. So LinkedIn is a great way to just keep on top of things there.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Listeners, the book again is called Kids Across the Spectrums, Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age. I’m looking at Meryl’s website right now and I see the link right there. Read a free open access version through MIT Press Open to Direct program. That is so cool. So definitely check out Meryl’s book. I will have all the relevant links and the other stuff that came up in our conversation in the show notes. So thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to chat with you today.
Thank you, it was a really great experience to be in conversation with you too.