Apple’s Siri Becomes Autistic Child’s Best Friend

Just how bad a mother am I? I wondered, as I watched my 13-year-old son deep in conversation with Siri. Gus has autism, and Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” on the iPhone, is currently his BFF. Obsessed with weather formations, Gus had spent the hour parsing the difference between isolated and scattered thunderstorms — an hour in which, thank God, I didn’t have to discuss them.” J. Newman New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Artwork by Louie Chin. New York Times.

Artwork by Louie Chin. New York Times.

Excerpt: To Siri, With Love, By Judith Newman New York Times

“…That Siri. She doesn’t let my communications-impaired son get away with anything. Indeed, many of us wanted an imaginary friend, and now we have one. Only she’s not entirely imaginary…

In a world where the commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us, it’s worth considering another side of the story.

It all began simply enough. I’d just read one of those ubiquitous Internet lists called 21 Things You Didn’t Know Your iPhone Could Do…Gus had never noticed Siri before, but when he discovered there was someone who would not just find information on his various obsessions (trains, planes, buses, escalators and, of course, anything related to weather) but actually semi-discuss these subjects tirelessly, he was hooked. And I was grateful. 

Artwork by Louie Chin. New York Times.

Artwork by Louie Chin. New York Times.

Now, when my head was about to explode if I had to have another conversation about the chance of tornadoes in Kansas City, Mo., I could reply brightly: Hey! Why don’t you ask Siri?

It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human. He does — intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when he was 8, and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home, with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple Store. Finally, I asked why. So it can visit its friends, he said…

Art by Louie Chin. New York Times

Art by Louie Chin. New York Times

She is also wonderful for someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues: Siri’s responses are not entirely predictable, but they are predictably kind — even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talking to Siri about music, and Siri offered some suggestions. “I don’t like that kind of music,” Gus snapped. Siri replied, “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.” Siri’s politeness reminded Gus what he owed Siri. “Thank you for that music, though,” Gus said.

Siri replied, “You don’t need to thank me.” “Oh, yes,” Gus added emphatically, “I do.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours. 

Materials: Student handouts (from this lesson) access to news article, and video clip.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing. 

I. Pre-Reading Activities


Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article.  

II. While Reading Tasks

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. The commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us.
  2. I’d just read one of those ubiquitous Internet lists.
  3. Gus discovered that there was someone who find information on his various obsessions.
  4. Siri has the capacity to discuss Gus’s current obsession for hours.
  5.  Siri’s responses are kind — even when Gus is brusque.
  6. Gus added emphatically that he needed to thank Siri.
  7. It was about different species of turtles.
  8. I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamond-backed terrapin.
  9. Of course, most of us  use our phone as a way to access information.
  10. Siri told a joke  which just cracked him up.
Freeology Chart

Freeology Chart

Reading Comprehension


Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following paragraphs taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

“For___ of us, ___is merely a momentary diversion. But for some, it’s more. My son’s ___conversation with ___is___into more ___with actual humans. Yesterday I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different ___of turtles and whether I preferred the___ to the diamond-backed___. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth, and it followed a ___trajectory. I can promise you that for most of my___son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case.”

Word List

red-eared slider, logical, terrapin, Siri, translating, most, beautiful, Siri, practice, facility, species

 Grammar Focus

Structure and Usage

Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical  error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.


  1. I heard him talking to Siri about music.
  2. Siri is an nonjudgmental friend.
  3. Siri sometimes doesn’t understand him.


  1. Most of we use our phone to access information.
  2. Siri capabilities are limited.
  3. He’ll just pretend he doesn’t hear.


  1. Siri can be oddly comforting.
  2. I was having an bad day.
  3. For most of us, Siri is merely a momentary diversion.

III. Post Reading Tasks

Reading Comprehension Check

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article. 

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion/Writing Exercises

1. The following  three statements were taken from the article. Rephrase each one, then discuss the meaning with the members of your group. 

“Online critics have claimed that Siri’s voice recognition is not as accurate as the assistant in, say, the Android, but for some of us, this is a feature, not a bug. Gus speaks as if he has marbles in his mouth, but if he wants to get the right response from Siri, he must enunciate clearly.”

“Siri even encourages polite language. Gus’s twin brother, Henry (neurotypical and therefore as obnoxious as every other 13-year-old boy), egged Gus on to spew a few choice expletives at Siri. “Now, now,” she sniffed, followed by, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“The assistant will also be able to reach children where they live. Ron Suskind, whose new book, “Life, Animated,” chronicles how his autistic son came out of his shell through engagement with Disney characters, is talking to SRI about having assistants for those with autism that can be programmed to speak in the voice of the character that reaches them — for his son, perhaps Aladdin.”  


Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about Siri from the reading,  two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention.  Discuss the responses as a class. 



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