BookBrowse Reviews To Siri with Love by Judith Newman

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To Siri with Love

A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines

by Judith Newman

To Siri with Love by Judith Newman X
To Siri with Love by Judith Newman
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2017, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2018, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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To Siri With Love is an engaging and informative look at a family struggling to cope with autism.

It is likely that you know someone who is impacted by autism: In 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder.

However, the everyday lives of autistic individuals are rarely highlighted. As author Judith Newman points out in this book, "Narratives of autism tend to be about the extremes," about either "the eccentric genius who will one day be running NASA...or the person who is "so impaired he is smashing his head against the wall and finger painting with the blood." But what about the millions of people who are somewhere in between? In To Siri With Love, Newman delivers a portrait of what a typical day looks like for those dealing with this condition. "If you have to read one book about autism," she writes, "This is not that One Book. It is a slice of life for one family, one kid."

Newman is the mother of twin teen boys. One of them, Gus, was diagnosed as being "on the spectrum" — he has one of several developmental disorders that is now under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Newman writes about Gus's early years as she and her husband began to suspect their child wasn't developing as quickly as he should.

"Well, at least he's not autistic. Right?" I cringe now when I think how often I forced all those well-meaning people — therapists, teachers, counselors, friends, babysitters, family members — to sympathetically grin through the required answer. It was the mental health equivalent of "Does my ass look fat in these jeans?" Because you know what? If you have to ask, your ass definitely looks fat in those jeans...Everyone – everyone said "No."

Newman explains how she came to understand the daily ongoing trials her son would face and the emotional challenges she too would have to overcome. She talks about her constant fears about what would ordinarily be mundane issues: whether or not her son can be trusted to walk to school on his own; what will happen if he ever falls in love; or whether he can hold down a job someday.

Newman's frustrations are also evident as she tries to give her family as normal a life as she can, only to feel she's failed when Gus is unhappy. She mentions one trip to Disneyland during which Gus continually yelled at random strangers standing in line for the roller coasters, telling the crowd the rides were "scary and bad." "Essentially I paid $2000 to glide through It's a Small World over and over" she writes in reference to the eponymous Disney attraction. She also explains the various methods the family has found to ease stressful situations for Gus and for the family. For example, Gus is fixated on the weather and used to discuss it non-stop with his parents and brother, but with the advent of personal digital assistants like Apple's Siri, (see Beyond the Book) he can now turn to his virtual friend for information.

Newman highlights Gus's strengths as well. For example, she found that at the hospital bed of a dying elderly relative, the only way she could bring herself to provide physical comfort was by touching the person's arm through a blanket. Not so, Gus:

It never occurred to him to be frightened. If he noticed the smells of rot and ammonia that are so much a part of the last weeks of life, they didn't bother him. It never occurred to him to not reach for a hand or lean in for a squeeze...Most days, I think about the deficits of not understanding a concept as abstract as death, and of course, it is a deficit. But I've seen the upside of Gus's cluelessness in every hug, every touch.

Throughout, Newman addresses her situation with both humor and utter honesty. I was particularly struck by her admission that she hated being a mother for the first several months of her children's lives. She admits that she has bad days during which she tends to focus on all the things Gus can't do. But then she thinks of all the things he couldn't do five years ago that he now can, and is able to imagine a future for him.

The book that became To Siri With Love started as a single article with the same title written for The New York Times. It focused on Gus's interaction with the digital assistant. Although this article forms the basis of one chapter of the novel and the other chapters are equally self-contained, they feel connected enough that you don't get the impression you're reading a series of blog features.

I wholeheartedly recommend To Siri With Love for all audiences. Reading groups in particular will find it a good candidate for discussion. The book likely won't radically alter most people's views about autism sufferers and their loved ones. It will, however, bring more understanding as people come to know the author and her truly remarkable son.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in November 2017, and has been updated for the August 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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