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To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines

Review

To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines

Since autistic children crave predictable, logical, repetitive interactions, it’s not surprising that Gus Newman found a friend in the robotic responses of a cell phone.

Since he has a “typically developing” twin, Henry, it was not difficult for author Judith Newman (YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE AN UNNATURAL WOMAN) to observe that Gus was not going to reach his developmental goals. Early on, he was given a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface) became Gus’ pal, someone with whom he could chat without fear of criticism or weird looks. When he asked her to marry him, she pertly answered, “I’m not the marrying kind.”

"Newman’s observations, recollections and personal research are invaluable, and there’s no doubt that TO SIRI WITH LOVE will attract a grateful readership."

Always attached to music, Gus immediately became attracted to children’s song composer/performer Laurie Berkner, whose music was geared to toddlers. With his perfect pitch, Gus could sing her songs --- over and over and over. At his first Berkner concert, even while attached to a 20-foot rope to keep him from running away, he ran away --- to get backstage. Berkner later told Newman that “a bunch of kids on the spectrum are obsessed with me.” Her simple lyrics make it easier, it seems, for such children to absorb typical concepts. Gus’ love of music has sometimes caused his mother to sing a request rather than speak it. His father John, an opera singer, hopes he will pursue some sort of musical career, but although he has a beautiful voice, the boy can’t make eye contact with his audience.

Newman frankly discusses her misperceptions and mistakes in raising her two boys --- in their infancy she was lonely and anxious, and her much older husband was detached from the process. She learned that letting Gus sleep with her, even though it could be stressful, seemed to help him connect better in general. She recounts with precision the many markers for autism that combined in the perfect storm that created Gus: his father is old and the child of an engineer, she was depressed during pregnancy and suffers from synesthesia, the babies were born prematurely, and maybe she and John were autistic, the classic “refrigerator” parents once identified by Leo Kanner, an early ASD researcher.

Newman undertook to write about her family after she penned a story about Gus’ special relationship with Siri --- with the title now used for her book --- for The New York Times. It caused such a huge stir that she knew she had more to say. She felt sure that her viewpoint could be useful to other parents of children with ASD, a still-puzzling complex of dysfunction that seems to have proliferated, especially among boys, in the current century.

Newman’s observations, recollections and personal research are invaluable, and there’s no doubt that TO SIRI WITH LOVE will attract a grateful readership. Despite the many trials her family has gone through with her son’s ASD, and though he is and always will be different from the majority of his peers, Newman is sure that Gus “is currently a happy person and autism is…part of his Gus-ness.”

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on August 25, 2017

To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines
by Judith Newman

  • Publication Date: August 22, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062413627
  • ISBN-13: 9780062413628