To Siri, With So Much Disappointment

To Siri With Love author Judith Newman and her son Gus
[image: A white woman with long curly dark hair, snuggling with her teen
son, who has short dark hair, next to an image of the book To Siri With Love.]
It took me a long time to read Judith Newman's autism parenting memoir To Siri With Love, despite the author herself courteously sending me a copy. I had to nudge myself to keep going, because I don't like reading books that treat autistic people as inscrutable annoyances. I also dragged my feet due to more personal preferences: books written in breezy airport-bookstore-ready voices are not my thing, plus Newman's sense of humor put me off: Getting a discount on a hotel room because a kid was recently eaten by an alligator onsite is not amusing to me, for instance.

Others, including autistic writer Max Sparrow, have written extensively about why To Siri With Love is flawed, and you should read what they have to say. Because I'm not alone in noticing that one of the primary problems with the book is that, when it talks about autism, it recycles outdated and stigmatizing cliches. Despite the two years since the award-winning neurodiversity explainer and history NeuroTribes was published, and despite Newman being a journalist, To Siri features common misconceptions, like insisting all autistic people lack theory of mind (long-established research clarifies that the issue is actually one of “double empathy,” in which negative assumptions from non-autistic people about autistic people are most of the problem).

I am also put off by how little respect Newman's shows for autistic people. She writes passionately about how much a specific autistic adult needs support and understanding and (correctly) how badly society and systems have mistreated him—yet reveals second-hand information about his bowel habit demonstrations of distress. This actual lack of theory of mind is even more confusing given that Newman wrote Siri in part to bring more attention to non-genius autistic kids like her son Gus (who seems like the most awesome young man ever), a group she considers underrepresented. But, as as comedian and filmmaker Hari Kondabolu says in talking about minority representation in general: it can’t just be about the stereotypes; it has to be about recognizing real-life diversity and humanity. Yet Newman does nothing to expand autism understanding, bust negative autism stereotypes, or further her son's humanity; if anything To Siri With Love mostly illustrates how much her son's autistic traits annoy her.

I think Newman has failed her son by writing this book. I think her book will make life harder, not easier, for autistic people including but not limited to both our sons. Because when it comes to the treatment of autistic people, the entire world is essentially bigoted bullies and complicit bystanders. Instead of defending her son, Newman has joined the side of the bullies in declaring, “Well yeah, I love him but I get your point and actually I agree that he’s weird.”

This deeply messed up attitude needs to be called out. While it’s common if not OK for parents to be ignorant and bigoted when they come from outside a community, once you find out your own kids are part of a margnialized community you are supposed to be like Amy Acker's mom in Marvel’s X-Men-adjacent series Gifted, and get 100% on your kid's side and do whatever is necessary to protect them. (I’m not recommending going on the lam, but allying with and learning from your kids’ community? Yes, that is actually a very good idea.)

And you certainly don’t join the world's bullies in smacking down all the other autistic people who come to your kid's aid because they are part of his community and get how much being bullied hurts. Instead, you ask your kid's people—who may not be exactly like your kid but surely understand what it is like to be constantly treated like subhumans yet survive—how they did it. You learn from them. Because you and those autistic people? That particular Venn diagram is all your kid has. It should be you, Autistics, and your kid against the fucking world.

This is why it is so infuriating and hurts so much to have a mainstream author like Newman choose the side of conventional shitty attitudes about autism and autistic people when her kid needs so much more from her. Yes, changing one's deeply ingrained negative assumptions about autism is hard. Yes, it's harder when society reinforces those assumptions. But if you’re the parent of a child from a minority group yet you yourself represent and have direct connections to high-profile media channels, and you not only shirk your power and waste the opportunity to change minds but then belittle and dismiss and sabotage your son's autistic community members for having opinions about your harmful book and the people it is hurting, including your own kid? You kind of suck.

People need to be aware that, despite Newman's insistence otherwise, autistic people generally don’t think they know autistic kids better than those kids' parents do. But autistic people assuredly do know what it’s like to be an autistic kid in a way non-autistic people never can. They have logical explanations for matters Newman considers autistic mysteries, like why autistic people have meltdowns over things that make no sense to outsiders, and why those meltdowns are not manipulative tantrums. They understand why Routine is Life. They understand that it's fully possible to have phenomenal skills in some areas while also having serious disabilities. They understand why training autistic kids like they're sea lions may result in some compliance and changed behavior, but it also results in kids being traumatized and not trusting their own right to say "no." They understand that when parents like Newman contradict autistic experience on these matters, and in doing so influence other parents to dismiss autistic insights, those parents' collective autistic children will suffer.

To Siri With Love also lacks informed empathy. If Newman had spent real time researching the history of reproductive rights for people with disabilities, she would have known that her blithely casual “maybe I will sterilize Gus, maybe I won’t” attitude reinforces the life-destroying notion that disabled people shouldn't have agency over their own bodies. Yes, she includes a few obligatory citations in related history. But her tone and sources omit the core histories of Black, disabled, and other marginalized communities, including why is it so inhumane to have had their reproductive rights forcibly stripped away. As Kerima Çevik writes, "Forced sterilization is part of a larger nightmare of systemic abuse of the black body we've survived but can't forget." Self-engaged and shallow approaches like Newman's, in my opinion, contribute to the ongoing atmosphere that allows the reproductive rights of people with disabilities to remain under attack.

People like Lydia Brown have already criticized how awful it is for Newman to muse about her son’s sex life, and equate it to a Benny Hill film, as though being autistic somehow turns sex farcical and fictional (she also once again disregards her son's privacy and dignity). I can't help but wonder: If she's so concerned about her son's sexuality, why she doesn’t include helpful information about sex ed for people with developmental disabilitiesavoiding learned compliance, or the increased rates of sexual abuse of people with disabilities? Anyone who has ever read The World According to Garp is aware that that sexual abuse of people with disabilities is not limited to women.

Newman has heard most of these criticism before, and was not pleased by them. And here's my final disappointment: Instead of listening, she went on the attack against her son's autistic brethren and their allies. While of course we all want our friends to circle the wagons for us, there is no excuse for Newman and her defenders silencing marginalized disabled people, or making fun of how people who (by definition) have communication disabilities express themselves. I am horrified by her willful abuse of her privilege, just as I was horrified by some autistic people’s calls for Newman to die, or have her kids taken away.

Siri: Please delete the book "To Siri With Love" from my Kindle app. Thank you.