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A Smart Home Can Be a Friendlier Home for People on the Autism Spectrum

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April is Autism Awareness Month, and you’ve no doubt stumbled across a host of personal stories about the trials of raising profoundly autistic children, about the struggles of autistic adults finding work, finding love, finding their place in the world. And I don’t wish to take anything away from any of that or belittle those stories at all. But in the spirit of Autism Awareness, I wanted to tell my own personal story, about my own experiences as a high-functioning autistic (an Aspie, if you will), and how home automation has been one of the most significant life-changers for me since I was diagnosed as a teenager.

Being diagnosed allowed me to understand how differently my brain works from most people’s brains, to learn a set of skills that enabled me to adapt, to analyze and process body language cues that I don’t (and never will) intuitively understand; to make the sorts of faces I needed to make to let other people know that there’s a person in here; to recognize—much to my surprise and dismay—that not everyone shares my fascination with leptons, bosons, and the mechanical differences between Chevy’s 327 cubic-inch L-76 and L-84 smallblock V8 engines. Nearly thirty years later, I think (I hope) that the mask I wear when thrust into social situations at parties and trade shows ironically allows people to see the person I am, not the neurological condition I have.

But at home, I’ll admit, that tiring mask comes off. This, I’ll also admit, probably makes me a challenge to live with at times. But you’d be amazed by just how much home automation has dulled the jagged edges of some of those challenges. Most couples fight about money, they say; my wife and I used to fight about lights. A lot. I am, as so many people on the autism spectrum are, incredibly light sensitive—to the point that light most people could barely read by can blind me if I’m not prepared for it. So my home’s old, dumb lighting dimmers were a constant source of aggravation and animosity. I would walk into a room that my wife had previously occupied, tap the dimmer, and end up peeling my retinas off the back of my skull. She would follow behind me, tap the dimmer expecting decent illumination, and have to circle back around to crank the light up to her preferred scorching intensities. Now, with the combination of Lutron lighting control and Control4 home automation, our lighting adapts to us, not the other way around. I tap a dimmer once to achieve an acceptable level of illumination, and she double-taps to turn an overhead light into a veritable O-type main-sequence star.

It may seem like such a small thing to many of you, I imagine, but the small things like that add up. And home automation has allowed us to ameliorate so many of those small things.

Every individual living with autism is just that—an individual—but there are an amazing number of common threads woven through the relationships between neurotypical and high-functioning autistic people. A common thread in such relationships that actually work is the tendency for the neurotypical partner to ask the autistic partner for certain gestures. And no, I don’t mean hand-waving gestures, but rather little actions that draw us out of our natural solipsism and remind our better halves that, yes, we do care. For me and my wife, one such gesture has always been a request for me to turn on the front porch light at sunset in winter months, before she gets home from work. I hardly ever remembered. Seriously, maybe once a month. And when I did remember, it was cause for the sort of celebration normally reserved for returning astronauts or visiting kings.

The very first thing I did after my home automation system was installed, though, was to create an automated lighting event that tracks sunset and sunrise times for our location, and flips the front porch light on fifteen minutes before dark. Is that cheating, you ask? Perhaps. Does it still count as a gesture? Well, in my defense, I did remember to turn the porch light on every evening; it’s just that I only had to remember once.

Again, I’m just one person on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and each of us is as unique as everyone else, but the really neat thing about home automation is that each system is an individual, too, adapting via custom programming to the lifestyle (or neurological quirks) of the homeowner.

One of my particular quirks, for example, is a fascination with weather that verges on compulsion. The atmosphere is a brutally unpredictable beast, which can be disconcerting for someone like me, who longs for predictability. My method of coping with that is to keep one step ahead of meteorological shifts: to pour over every weather map I can get my hands on the instant I’m awake every morning. For me, it’s not about knowing whether I need an umbrella; it’s about not being thrown completely out of whack when today’s weather isn’t exactly the same as yesterday’s. And given that the Weather Channel now has as much to do with the weather as MTV does with music, that used to leave me pawing through bookmarks on my iPhone or iPad first thing in the morning to get my compulsory weather fix.

Now I have the static URLs of several constantly updated weather maps plugged into the security camera address of my Control4 system, and via the 7” Portable Touchscreen on my nightstand, I can instantly, at a touch, dig through NOAA surface analyses, wind maps, pressure maps, charts, and graphs before my feet ever hit the floor.

To you, that might seem like a convenience. To me, it’s an absolutely non-negotiable, essential part of my morning routine, and home automation makes it simpler, easier, and less obtrusive than I would have ever imagined. And it’s just one example of the regularity, the predictability, the seamless and intelligent adaptability that home automation has added to my daily life—all of which helps me cope with the unexpected challenges that every day brings. And all of which makes me so much easier to live with.

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