Sunday, April 9, 2017

Search: Alex and Google

In a previous blog entry, I explained that one of the best ways to find out what Alex is thinking is to check his Google search history. Because his speech is still delayed, he doesn’t always verbalize what is on his mind. In fact, if I ask him what he’s thinking, he’ll often blurt, “Nothing!” to avoid having to explain his thoughts. Truthfully, most of the time, I’m not too surprised by the list that appears in his search history, and I’m relieved to discover that he’s not searching topics that would make me worry about him. Last night, I took a quick peek at his most recent searches just to confirm that he's using his iPad and Internet privileges appropriately and was pleased to discover that he is. Moreover, I found some of his current topics of interest pretty interesting.

For example, one of Alex’s favorite pastimes is eating, especially at restaurants, which his search history confirmed. Alex had searched Google for two nearby restaurants, Culver’s, which is one of his favorites, and The Port, a drive-in restaurant open only in the summer. He had also searched the Panda Express menu, probably curious about what they serve and what he can eat there on his gluten-free and casein-free diet; a Panda Express is currently under construction in our town. Besides these restaurant searches, he also had typed in “how to stop being on a gluten-free diet.” I guess he hopes that someday he won’t have to avoid glutens.

Another common theme in Alex’s searches is celebrities. To illustrate, he looked up the birthdays of former Chicago Cubs baseball player Sammy Sosa and singer Celine Dion. Alex includes Sammy Sosa in his prayers every night, and I’m guessing he was curious about Celine Dion after seeing her on The Voice television show. He also searched for information about his favorite college basketball player, Valparaiso University’s star player, Alec Peters. In addition, he wanted to know how much country singer Miranda Lambert and the former host of the game show The Price Is Right, Bob Barker, weigh. Because Alex needs to quantify people by numbers, he likes to know their birthdays, ages, heights, and weights. However, he also knows that asking this information can be considered rude, but Google can tell him this information without making him seem nosy.

One of his search topics could seem cryptic, but I’m fairly certain that it was also related to his interest in celebrities––dead or alive. He will frequently ask about certain famous people and want to know if they’re still living. He finds the musical group the Beatles especially interesting since two of the Fab Four are dead. If he hears something about one of them, he’ll invariable ask, “Is he one of the dead Beatles or one of the alive ones?”

Yet another one of Alex’s interests––statistics––appears in his search history. For instance, he was looking up long words, specifically those with ten letters and sixteen letters. Combining his love of mathematics with his love of meteorology, he had Googled “13 most likely states to have tornadoes.” Also, he studies gas prices religiously, so I wasn’t surprised to see that he was checking out Gas Buddy, which provides current gas prices at various stations in the area.

However, Alex is the ultimate Gas Buddy, whose eagle eyes seek out gas prices as we drive along and compare and contrast the different prices at different places. He’ll excitedly announce from the back seat, “The gas prices at Speedway in Chesterton are four cents higher than the gas prices at Family Express in Valparaiso!” We find that his longest and most enthusiastic spoken sentences typically revolve around gas prices. This is a far cry from when he was younger and got upset by gas prices, throwing things from the back seat or kicking our seats if he wasn’t pleased. In fact, we had figured out how to get around town without ever passing a gas station just to avoid the wrath of Angry Gas Buddy in the back seat. Thankfully, that’s another phase that has disappeared.

Perhaps because Alex can now verbalize better what he wants to communicate, he doesn’t get upset about gas prices and other concerns. Apparently, he finds language acquisition as interesting as I do. Specifically, he had searched the following two questions: “When did language start?” and “When did you [meaning himself because he still confuses his pronouns] start having language?” Alex’s development of language has been interesting because he mastered reading and then writing before speaking. Maybe as his speech has been developing (especially with regard to commenting on gas prices), he has been more curious about his early language skills.

In reviewing Alex’s search history, probably the most curious topic I found was helicopter prices. Hopefully, when he discovered how expensive they are, he realized that he can’t afford to buy one. However, the most thought-provoking question in his search history was “How long is a long time?” He may have wondered about that because we frequently tell him that something happened a long time ago when he asks about some historical event. For his mind that needs to quantify an amount, he was likely seeking some specific range of years. Unfortunately, Google’s answers could not give him the precise details he wanted. Maybe he could put together those two topics, as in, it will be a long time before Alex can save up enough money to buy a helicopter.

While we are fortunate that Alex, unlike many people with autism, can speak and tell us what he is thinking, we are even more fortunate that we can get a glimpse of his very active mind by monitoring his online activity. Although he may claim that he has nothing on his mind, his Google search history proves otherwise, reassuring us that he lives up to his childhood nickname, Mr. Curious, and still loves to learn something new every day.

“So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:17

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