Autism awareness is all very well, but the real point of this book is to make Cheerios available at Disney World
his precise knowledge of the subways, his affinity for cuddles. As a result, the book is less about decontextualised science than it is about intimacy. Chances are you, too, would much rather hear about Gus’s befuddled reaction to Simon Says than his mirror neurons.
An exemplary chapter, on travelling with Gus, punctuates absurd comedy with thoughtful melancholy. Newman explains that her son gets homesick not for people, but for things: snow globes and model trains, bedroom curtains and Disney paraphernalia. She entices him to leave for a family trip to Orlando by sending him an email pretending to be Disney’s Maleficent. “Dear Gus,” she writes in her fake persona, “Why don’t you and your mother drop by Disney World?” (“In my haste to write this email,” Newman admits, “I actually wrote, ‘Why don’t you and your mother drop by Israel?’”) They make it to Orlando, but the villains aren’t around. Newman arranges for her son to attend a Cinderella breakfast, in hope that one of the evil stepsisters might be there. The stepsisters are, but Gus’s preferred cereal is not. So it goes.
Newman’s narrative works on several levels. The point of the Orlando anecdote, for those readers churning through the book for helpful nuggets, is that children with autism may relate more easily to the emotions rendered so broadly by villains. But its strength lies in its full depiction of family life, and in Newman’s dry humour.
“Autism awareness is all very well,” she concludes, “but the real point of this book is to make Cheerios available at Disney World.”
That humour helps to maintain a balance. The memoir is never over-sentimental, but it is sometimes very sad, and Newman is unafraid to depict herself in an unflattering light, in all the hardest ways — not just in the easily shocking moments, but in morally difficult thinking, as when she considers what will happen to Gus in sexual maturity. Gus was 14 when Newman was writing the book. “It is very hard to say this out loud,” Newman writes. “Let me try. I do not want Gus to have children. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what I want. Don’t I?”
Newman is proud that her son is a collector of noises, able to recognise the pitches of individual ambulances sight unseen. But she also knows that his talents, theoretically a point of connection, can isolate him in practice. Gus may have perfect pitch, but he spends his choir time in a corner making train noises. Enter Siri. The voice-recognition software performs a wealth of functions for the autistic community: conversationalist, babysitter and elocution trainer. Like Disney animations, Siri provides a comforting commercial sameness. She has enabled Gus to have real, sustained conversations, albeit ones about turtles.
To Siri with Love is above all a close and wise portrait, Newman’s love letter not to technology but to her son. Newman has mixed feelings about Gus’s dependency on corporate products — the heightened schmaltz of cartoon emotions, the unreal universe of screens and canned voices. But she has nothing but deep, wide love for Gus.
“The screens may not be real life,” Newman concludes. “But just maybe they are providing scaffolding to help him create that life.”