An ethnographic study of diverse children on the autism spectrum and the role of media and technology in their everyday lives.
In spite of widespread assumptions that young people on the autism spectrum have a “natural” attraction to technology—a premise that leads to significant speculation about how media helps or harms them—relatively little research actually exists about their everyday tech use. In Kids Across the Spectrums, Meryl Alper fills this gap with the first book-length ethnography of the digital lives of autistic young people. Based on research with more than sixty neurodivergent children from an array of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, Kids Across the Spectrums delves into three overlapping areas of their media usage: cultural belonging, social relationships, and physical embodiment.
Alper's work demonstrates that what autistic youth do with technology is not radically different from their nonautistic peers. However, significant social and health inequalities—including limited recreational programs, unsafe neighborhoods, and challenges obtaining appropriate therapeutic services—spill over into their media habits. With an emphasis on what autistic children bring to media as opposed to what they supposedly lack socially, Alper argues that their relationships do not exist outside of how communication technologies affect sociality, nor beyond the boundaries of stigmatization and society writ large. Finally, she offers practical suggestions for the education, healthcare, and technology sectors to promote equity, inclusion, access, and justice for autistic kids at home, at school, and in their communities.
Meryl Alper is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. She is the author of Digital Youth with Disabilities and Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (both MIT Press).
“Weaving together empathetic research with autistic children with a critique of society's prejudices and expectations, Alper lays to rest a host of myths, offering instead a deeply humane insight into their digital and not-so-digital lives.”
Sonia Livingstone, Professor, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics; author of Parenting for a Digital Future
“This groundbreaking book cuts through the clichés about kids and 'screen time' to reveal how young autistic people use digital media to construct identities and communities in a world built for neurotypicals. A timely and important read.”
Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
“This deeply humane book presents a vivid account of how autistic children and their families use media to create rich and rewarding social lives. Parents of neurodivergent children will find validation and reassurance in these pages.”
Kristen Harrison, Professor of Communication and Media, University of Michigan
"A more expansive, empathetic and complicated portrait of autistic kids, through the lens of tech and media, than much past research and popular portrayals."
The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding and support from MIT Press Direct to Open