OK Google, "Wheels on the bus"

Tulika Prasad

My son loves a good conversation. I see his eyes light up when I talk to him. He knows words can do wonders—make him visible, express his needs, make friends, and magically get things done. Most importantly, it can play his favorite songs on TV. The only problem is, he has almost no words.

His desire to talk is inspiring but watching him give up when we fail to understand his multiple attempts at saying something to us, is heartbreaking. Although this happens at our house more often than you would imagine, it still breaks my heart to see that he feels helpless and let down when his words fail him. However, he never gives up. He keeps trying, over and over again, repeating his words, sometimes with a little more emphasis, expecting us to understand him and discouraged when we don’t. Those rare occasions when we actually solve that puzzle, the delight on his face and the joy and satisfaction in our hearts are hard to describe.

This story is about the night when he was just not ready to go to sleep. He was busy watching his favorite rhymes on TV and did not want to leave. So, I turned the TV off so that he could move on. He had other ideas, of course! Right, when I was pulling him off the couch he said “O teh dooduh, E B buh” - translates to “OK Google, wheels on the bus!” He just said a command to our Google home! It’s the longest sentence he had ever said!

It seemed like the universe just paused for a brief second. What did I just hear? While all the professionals were busy claiming my son’s autism prevented him from learning by observation, he watched us and learned what mattered to him. Of course, our Google home had no clue my son was even talking to it, but I did, and so I sneakily played his “Wheels on the Bus” on the TV for him. He felt proud, and more importantly, he felt independent and successful.

After my initial euphoria settled down, that familiar feeling of helplessness crept in. If you are a parent of a child with autism, you know that even in your most delightful moments, this feeling has a bad habit of surreptitiously making an entrance and weigh down your joy. Will my son ever be able to really say what he wants? Will his speech be clear enough...ever? Will I always be around to sneakily help him? Will these devices ever be intelligent enough to be useful for my child? I had so many questions but no answers...one question leading to yet another anxiety and yet another bigger question. All of it casting a shadow on my little moment of joy, as always.

His confidence, when he talked to our Google Home, his pride when he saw the video playing on TV, and the delight it gave us...was all a lie. The fact was, that no one heard my son, not even that stupid cold device. As though it was not enough that most people did not understand my son, now it was these so-called intelligent devices. I wondered at the futility of artificial intelligence if all it did was enhance the lives of those who already can, and completely ignore those who could. The bridge that technology was supposed to be, is actually turning out to be a chasm, one that makes the divide deeper and larger.

I tossed and turned all night, feeling defeated by my son’s autism and powerless by one of the world’s biggest enablers and hoping, that one day, Google (and other AI devices) will probably find a way to listen to my son’s voice, and respond. That one day, it will find a way into the lives of those like my son who probably need it the most.

Google, are you listening?

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