My Brother's Digital Security Blanket

Adam is on the autistic spectrum, and for as long as I can remember this has revealed itself in his affinity with technologies.

Here’s a familiar scene in my house: Someone opens the front door too early, triggering the frantic wail of the house alarm. My mother drops her shopping bags, the dog tears outside—but all eyes are on my brother.

Since I can remember, the sound of the alarm has been a cue for someone to locate Adam, who will doubtless already be several feet from the source of the noise, fingers jammed into his ears. There he will stand, stock-still, wide-eyed, until he knows the noise is gone. Adam hates the alarm. The sensory experience overloads him. But once we’re back inside he will seek out a totally different kind of noise—one that to the rest of us can seem just as bad, but to him is a sanctuary.

My brother is on the autistic spectrum, and for as long as I can remember this has revealed itself in his affinity with home technologies (except for the alarm). He likes other machinery, too—trains, cars, boats, planes—but the technologies at home are those he can use to build a fortress around himself. This fortress is a place of multimedia and high volume, of flashing screens and multiple channels. He follows motorsport obsessively, has an extensive collection of games, and expresses a defined musical preference either for Queen or The Shadows—which have both become part of our home’s eclectic soundtrack. He may shy away from the sound of an alarm, but his appetite for other kinds of sound can be  overwhelming. In a perfect outward symbol of his desire for technological saturation, Adam always wears two watches, one on each arm.

Soon, I’ll be making my annual Christmas pilgrimage home. I’ll shed phones and laptops and trade them for books and blankets and mugs of tea, the materials I’ll use to build my own holiday fortress. But as my dependence on technology wanes at this time of year, I’ll be reminded that Adam’s is continuous—and that his love for it emerged so early on.

My parents recall that when Adam was 3 and barely communicating with them at all, he taught himself to work the video machine. I remember now that he mastered the TV remote well before me, flicking through channels at lightning speed. As a sun-bronzed toddler with a mop of sandy-colored hair in a bowl cut, he’d haul his Fisher-Price tape recorder everywhere with him, like a poster-kid for the 90s. I’d use it to record myself reading stories and turn those into tapes for him: We played differently than other siblings, so I think I felt the tapes were one way I could make him like me more. The rest of the time, I was less gracious. I spent a large chunk of my childhood grumbling because Adam always seemed to have the remote.

In the late 90s, Adam was attached to a Walkman. Then he was transfixed by the first grey wedge of a computer my parents ever bought. At that point, my entire life revolved around Microsoft WordArt, and I learned to elbow my way into Adam’s rigorous computer game schedule so I could max out with multiple-shadow words in rainbow colors.

Later came the explosion of channels on TV, along with PlayStations, iPods, iPhones, iPads—slicker gadgets that now furnish 23-year-old Adam’s digital space. And yet, he shows a comical lack of technological discrimination. Recently, he gushed to me over Skype about how much he likes the new fridge in my parents’ house.

Adam has no problem listing the reasons why the fridge is great, but he does struggle to put more complicated feelings into words. He can’t explain to me exactly why he loves technology so much, offering only that it makes him feel “comfortable and calm” (his matter-of-fact response to my abstract, searching questions). I imagine that for my brother, the hum of the fridge, of screens and music around him, does for him what the sound of rainfall does for me, enclosing him in a blanket of soothing white noise. His desire for it can occasionally feel absurd—when I walk in to find the television broadcasting the nasal whine of Formula One racing, a game running unattended, the sound system on—and Adam soaking it all in. Sometimes he’s wearing headphones so he can hear the film playing on his iPad, too. My brother seeks continuum where others seek a pause.

Many people seem to think that people with autism are unhealthy obsessives who lead monotonous lives. That’s frustrating for parents like mine, who work hard to encourage Adam to seek "home" in other places—at his work, through art classes, with friends, or at the gym. It’s frustrating for Adam too—he enjoys his technological cocoon, he's not unhappy, his days aren't monotonous.

Adam hates to be late for his job because he enjoys it, he spends time perfecting his cornbread recipe over the weekends, and he adores our dog. He’s someone who enjoys the rowing machine at the gym, and who likes taking the family to dinner at his favorite restaurants. If we go away on holiday, he doesn’t mind trading his safe digital space for remote places where you can hear only birdsong—so long as The Shadows and an iPad can come along too.

Contrary to what many believe, autism isn’t a cookie cutter on someone’s character. It doesn’t churn out batches of humans who unanimously experience the same thing, all day, every day—although its hallmarks might make some believe so. Instead, there are facets to Adam’s life, just as there are to the life of anybody else. I have to remind myself of this too: While I’m away, I tend to picture him watching motorsport and checking the time on his double watches. It’s the affectionate image of him that’s lodged in my brain.

And really, Adam’s digital obsession isn’t all that unusual these days. If home is comfort and familiarity, then it is something we all seek through our phones, in our computers, on email or via Skype. By its very structure, technology invites us to practice repetitive behaviors and keep familiar habits alive. It transports us to places we feel comfortable, and offers us a virtual home when we are not home, but long to be. For many of us living in these times, to be stripped of technology is to be bereft—even homeless, in a way.

As in life, Adam just experiences all of this more extremely. But in his obsessions, we may see semblances of our own, signs of the digital fortresses we build ourselves, too. Adam may be on the farther end of it, but we’re all on that spectrum.