Daily Archives: January 9, 2007

How much can we learn when safely supervised?


I’ve got a long backlog of stuff I’m trying to blog, by the way, but this is what came out today.

I don’t in theory have a problem with making sure kids are safe. I want to say that up-front. But I’ve realized that a lot of the most important things I’ve learned in life, would not be possible for most autistic children in this day and age. I might have even not learned, or been much more delayed in learning, the connection between typing and communication, in today’s Internet-savvy world where parents protect and monitor their children online because of all the dangers involved. I’ve likewise heard Donna Williams describe running around totally unsupervised in ways that modern middle-class kids don’t get to do, and picking up a lot of important learning while in situations that are often considered quite dangerous.

When I was younger, there was a computer downstairs, and my brothers had it hooked up to a modem, that connected in turn to bulletin board systems. These were places you dialed up and could post on text-based message boards. On the fancier ones you could chat.

At this point in time, I was starting to get the mechanical act of typing down, as in pressing keys to make letters come out, and was becoming quite proficient at this. What BBSes allowed, though, was for typing words into a computer and getting responses back. Writing patterns of things into BBSes meant gradual recognition of what was meant by the patterns. I am sure I must have annoyed the crap out of a lot of people, but I learned some really important things that I still don’t know how I’d have otherwise learned.

These BBSes were not child-safe. If any parent saw what I was doing on there, they’d have shut down the computer. They included adult door games such as Fantasy Land, in which you gained points for having sexual encounters with other players and getting past their defenses. I encountered pedophiles who supposedly wanted to ask me questions about sexuality in children. My main shield against all of this was that I was too oblivious to what was going on, often, to respond in a way that satisfied anyone. I was still trying out the meaning and function of the written word as communication, so this stuff didn’t faze me or affect me.

A part of the freedom of this was that I was not being directly observed. If someone had plonked me into a writing program or something, and observed what I was doing, I would have stopped doing it. I would not have experimented as wildly as I did, and I would not have come to as wide an understanding of a lot of things as I did. I would also not have had the chance to learn a lot of things in context that I was able to learn in a BBS environment. There’s even a chance that the written word would have become as useless to me as the spoken word did. I had to have the privacy to discover these things on my own or I would not have wanted to discover them.

This is only one example of something I did that I “shouldn’t” have that probably benefited me a great deal. There are many more.

Safety is important, but I worry about how many autistic kids these days are being provided so much safety there’s no room to learn a lot of important stuff in a way that they can learn it. Certainly it was not safe for me to go all over the city on my own, certainly it was not safe to go on BBSes on my own, but both of these things, I am convinced, were important parts of my development of communication and understanding. It seems like there’s a big drive to regulate what we learn and what hazards we are and are not exposed to, and something vital might slip through the cracks of this safety. I’m not advocating sink-or-swim here — I’ve sunk too much to be that naive — but things happen in uncontrolled situations that are impossible in controlled ones.

If anyone else has experiences of learning important stuff in totally unsafe ways, I’m curious to hear it. It seems like the most important learning experiences of my life were also the least controlled and most dangerous. I’m not sure if I’d have figured out the function of back-and-forth written language until much later, if I’d been kept too safe.