Autism and Computing

Dinah Murray and Mike Lesser

1999, for Autism99 online conference organised by the NAS with the Shirley Foundation

[Editor’s note: the original version of this document included links to GIFs of Ferenc’s animations, and clips from the Autism & Computing film; I have added clips from Dinah’s YouTube video showing animations where the original GIF is missing, but don’t have the time to recreate all the clips from the film. Archive version of this page here]

See also Dinah’s Autism & Computing YouTube playlist.

Murray and Lesser present a hypertext document which offers both theory and practice about Autism using illustrative video clips and links. They argue that the central feature of Autism is attention-tunnelling, monotropism. The document both argues and demonstrates that computers can be an ideal environment for promoting communication, sociabilility, creativity, and playfulness for individuals even at the extreme of the autistic spectrum. Computers can thus directly address the “triad of impairments”. The potential for computers in Autism is not just educational but therapeutic. Computers afford an easy way of joining attention tunnels with minimal mutual discomfort, so circumventing some of the most disabling features of autistic spectrum disorders.

Intensely focussed interests may bring dividends lost to those polytropic individuals who typically model their world within broad contexts, bearing many interests simultaneously in mind. Self-respect and mutual respect may emerge, and even thrive outside the computer sessions.

Eoin Mason says “Hello everybody at TV land”. Eoin greets the world through the camera of Jes Benstock who is visiting the Masons’ to film the family for the video Autism & Computing. Clips from that, and short animations made by Ferenc Virag, illustrate the text. Click on them and they will play. The animations will download much faster than most of the video clips – if you’re in a hurry you could rest content with video stills, but please don’t miss Ferenc’s delightful works, which clarify and reinforce the text.

Computers offer scope for play, exploration and creativity in a safe environment which need make no verbal demands. Most of the time, most of us have multiply divided attention. We generally have many interests simultaneously aroused and ready to digest information (we have polytropic interest systems). With Autism attention is tunnelled, objects are isolated and deprived of context (people with Autism have monotropic interest systems).

Tunnelled interest systems make for an alarming world, fragmented, disconnected. A computer is unthreatening and controllable. It provides a comfortable environment which facilitates therapeutic transactions in which communication, sociability and imaginative play spontaneously occur.

Contained, very clear-cut boundary conditions
Naturally monotropic
Rule-governed and predictable thus controllable
Safe error-making
Highly perfectible medium
Possibilities of non-verbal or verbal expression It joins the individual’s attention tunnel

At the computer we have observed the following, which are sometimes said to be absent in people with Autism:


Ferenc was a pupil at Harborough School for children on the autistic spectrum when we met in 1991 (see An Autistic Friendship). At that stage, aged 12, he occasionally uttered a few words, but he has essentially been silent since around 1992. When Ferenc was 14, I introduced him to an animation program on my home computer. First I showed him a short, 16-frame animation my son had made, then I showed him it one frame at a time. At once Ferenc was keen to make a film of his own. Using skills from a familiar Paint program, and with a minimal, technical, contribution from me, Ferenc made a sequence of sixteen frames. He then played it back, looked at the rather jumpy results and proceeded to produce a smoothly running sequence, which he did not check until it was complete. I was amazed and impressed by his competence. The depth he’d given the screen by making the rectangle whizz off and then back towards us particularly struck me. To make sure I was seeing it the same way Ferenc was, I said “That looks to me as though it’s going away and then coming towards us, is that how it looks to you?” and he nodded enthusiastically.


That process of exploration and forethought recurs again and again in Ferenc’s animation work, as it does also in his approach to scientific questions. His next animation, several weeks later, is over 1000 frames long. In it he explores a whole range of possibilities, including some he uses again many months later. He works out not only how to make objects move, around and within the screen space, but how to make them move sinuously or revolve, and how to make them divide and join up again. He also uses a single angled line to show an opening door.

A capacity for total concentration was exemplified in all this – in marked contrast with Ferenc’s usual attitude in class or whenever his interest is not engaged. He had a brief break during the thousand framer, otherwise all his animations were produced in one sweep. His third, very short, film (weeks later again) illustrates the ferocity of his concentration. He took a short loop and kept adding and adding moving shapes of various kinds. For example, a curved comb shape near the bottom left keeps waving towards and away from the viewer. In the end, he creates two large pulsating shapes behind which almost all the other shapes are tantalisingly hidden. It took him around an hour of unswerving concentration to make. In the right (restricted stimulus) environment, people on the autistic spectrum generally only have a problem concentrating on other people’s interests – not with concentration per se. Professional animators use storyboards with the sequence sketched out before their eyes. Making a coherent film 144 frames long, one frame at a time without concurrent access to any other frame is not normal!

Each of Ferenc’s animations is an evidently creative project. He explores possibilities and discovers how to make effects which he later deploys in a context which contributes to their meaning, eg his first flying rectangle is the conclusion of a trek round the edge of the screen. In his fourth film, 144 frames long – which he made while we were filming him – his main “character/s” are a white line which makes a lengthy journey, including some twirling on the spot, to reconnect with itself.

Next Ferenc scrapped a couple of short films (did I praise them too enthusiastically? – I really loved them) which used premade shapes to dance in and out around the screen. Then he made this elegant and playful demonstration of his newly discovered powers to control and revolve premade objects. The more confident and skilful he becomes with this program the more scope there seems to be for a playfulness which he rarely shows in any other context. For examples of on-line autistic creativity and playfulness visit the URLs of Wendy [Wenn] Lawson, Tony Langdon, and Lindsay Weekes. Or explore the On One Page site, initiated and maintained by Gavin Simpson, or Jypsy’s Oops…wrong planet syndrome page, which must be among the most beautiful and witty on the web.

Every succesful occasion of taking control and making a mark on the environment must strengthen the sense of agency. Computers offer rich opportunities of this sort. Along with a sense of agency – “I did that” – a sense of personal achievement and self-esteem may also emerge. When Ferenc replayed for the first time the 144 frame movie with its white line, he grinned with delight at the moment of resolution when the white lines join (and so did I!). Much less ambitious projects may bring similar rewards to less ambitious people. For example, someone with very few skills indeed can manage to run a Powerpoint show: just by leaving a hand on the space bar a whole series of favourite images can repeatedly cycle. That can be a thrilling achievement for some. As well as boosting self-esteem, performance at the computer tends also to be genuinely valued by family and peers (sometimes by teachers too). This is of great importance for communicating with people with such acute insincerity detectors.

During Ferenc’s sessions at the computer either Murray or Lesser was standing by to comment, and to offer any support necessary in executing his intentions. It is easy to see exactly what someone’s focussed on at a computer, and therefore easy to join their attention tunnel in a friendly way. That is an optimal situation for an individual on the autistic spectrum and another person to feel in tune with each other. It is important to recognise and respect that, and to build on opportunities which arise. Imposing your own agenda on the situation can destroy a chance of mutual appreciation, and so miss a chance to motivate the considerable effort of modelling other people’s interests and intentions. When Ferenc and I had finished admiring his little film, I said I’d go and get Mike. Ferenc got to his feet and came too. We returned with Mike who was equally impressed and reached out a hand to shake the artist’s – and Ferenc shook it back.

In the Mason family, three out of five of the children are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder – Sean and Eoin, who are twins, and their younger brother, Micheal. The family has three computers, and all five children use them. Eoin spends a lot of time using a publishing program to produce leaflets, greetings cards, etc. Sean is the most extremely autistic member of the Mason family, and used to be much given to tapping and banging. Until he was seven he just watched the others at the computer, “on the outside looking in” as his mother put it. Then one day he went and got Rosemarie, who assumed he wanted her to do something for him – since that had always, so far, been his reason for leading her anywhere. But this time when she reached for the keyboard questioningly, he pushed her aside. He showed that he could use the mouse to access a graphics program, and proceeded to make rainbows. This desire to show and share is a vital part of the motivation to make a website, too. This is explicit on Jypsy‘s site, where she says, “This page will take you to pretty well everything I know about the autism spectrum and more. It illustrates my own obsessive interest in autism information gathering and a desire to share what I know. I also share our story, a personal look at our life on the spectrum.”

Looked at from an autistic viewpoint, computers make relevant, and therefore acceptable, spoken input much more likely. For example, although Ferenc does not speak himself, he “hears” and understands speech when it is addressed to his current concerns, ie when it is relevant to him. People find it easy to identify the interest of someone who is making graphic things happen on a monitor, and they find it easy to become involved with it. Much conversation in the Mason family, especially but not solely between the children, is relevant to on-screen events. Micheal, first spoke (at the age of four) to the computer, calling out “Jump!” to a shareware game called Prince of Persia. Before long he was talking to people too – again, often in the context of computer games.

People engaged in a co-operative activity are inherently equal in it. They are participants with a common interest, taking turns as the occasion arises to lead or be led. Conversation is in this sense a cooperative activity, and so are many computer games. In computer games unlike conversation, it is perfectly clearcut when it is one person or another’s turn. It is also usually quite clear what each turn-taker is meant to do. For those reasons, people on the autistic spectrum may find turn-taking much easier in a computer game than they do in spoken discourse. When playing together at the computer, all the Mason children, including Sean (who is the least communicative of them) take their turn just as the world hopes they will. Turn-taking is also clearcut on the Internet, which has the added advantage of not being time-pressured. It provides a forum in which people on the autistic spectrum from all over the world exchange news and views and provide each other with mutual support (and criticism). For example, Jypsy‘s page, and the On One Page site, cited above for their creativity and playfulness, are also models of mutuality and helpfulness. Autism Network International, initiated by Jim Sinclair and Donna Williams inter alia, and Independent living on the autistic spectrum, organised by Martijn Dekker, are two e-organisations by and for people on the spectrum. See also the One Community Pledge, signed by several individuals with autism: “I affirm that we on the autistic spectrum — Kanners and Aspergers, high functioning and low functioning, rich and poor, those of us with additional disabilities and those without, all of us of whatever age, race, creed, sex, sexual preference, or any other subgrouping — are one community.”
As well as using the web to offer each other mutual support, a number of people on the spectrum have created sites which are intended to communicate with the non-autistic or “neurologically typical” (NTs, as people on the spectrum like to call those who are not). Their aim tends to be to try to explain to the NTs what autism is like from the inside – see, eg, David Nicholas Andrews‘ site, or Gunilla Gerland‘s, or Jared Blackburn‘s, or any of the sites already cited. This way of socialising with non-autistic people avoids much that is most difficult about them. While the Internet enables worldwide distant communication, every computer is an opportunity for live social exchange which also reduces many of its worst difficulties. Normal communication involves using standard forms (usually a common language) so that people can identify and share interests other people express. How to engender the desire to use a common tongue is often a central challenge for those who love an autistic child. How to acquire the skills of speech, with all its uncertainties and context-dependencies, may be an insuperable challenge for the child. But every computer program has its own self-limiting context and its own definite meanings. Effective deployment and understanding of shared meanings can be much more easily achieved within that restricted context than in the woolly, waffly, world of speech. And of course these meanings are a two-way bridge – the non-autistic participants find communications much easier too. Without effort, each goes halfway to meet the other.
Mutual awareness Shared attention/common interest A means of expression which arouses or expresses the same interests in all parties Taking turns

Computers facilitate all of these.

People with autism familiarly prefer and disprefer environments with certain characteristics:

Rules Rituals – formal – reliable Discourse (unless performance or pun) is factual OR ritual Highly predictable universe Clear distinctions Unhurried pace Restricted stimulus environmentFew or no universal rules Few or no rituals Little or no literal fact Blurred distinctions/uncertain boundaries Substantially unpredictable universe Rapid pace Multiple stimulus environment

The contrast here is not only between what people on the autistic spectrum like and don’t like – it is also a contrast between the world humans used to live in and the world we live in now, between a world without surplus and a world with trade. Surplus, domestication, and trade change the environment and so reduce the value of many once valuable characteristics such as single-minded pursuit, alertness to minute changes in the environment, etc..

Surplus, domestication, and trade raise other values such as the ability to compromise, to see things from different points of view, to arrive at agreement which suits both parties, to make an object sound attractive, to make a profitable deal (cf Jacob the sheep herd vs Esau the hunter). In the world of trade skill at modelling other people’s interests becomes a universal, and not just a maternal, goal.

For centuries the environment has tended more and more widely to be autism-incompatible. With computers a newly autism-compatible environment has emerged in the late twentieth century. People on the autistic spectrum have as much to contribute in this new environment as anyone. This is true in school, home or work, and at individual computers. It is abundantly true on the internet, as anyone who has followed up the links above will know.

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