Low-Tech Conquers The Airwaves: How A Non-Speaking Autistic Man Is Reshaping The Future Of Assistive Tech

Category Technology

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In December 2022, poet and vocal autism advocate DJ Savarese took part in a televised interview with a local news station. During the interview, Savarese used his laptop as a communication device to successfully demonstrate alternative communication methods that did not require cutting edge tech. Despite this, the process involved was surprisingly low-tech, proving that even such seemingly simple tasks require a complex system of technologies to be successful.

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In December 2022, a few months after learning that he’d won an Iowa Arts Fellowship to attend the MFA program at the University of Iowa, David James "DJ" Savarese sat for a televised interview with a local news station. But in order to answer the anchorman’s questions, Savarese, a 30-year-old poet with autism who uses alternative communication methods, needed to devise a communication hack. He’d been coming up with them since early in his childhood.

DJ Savarese was born in 1990 and is currently aged 30

Savarese participated remotely, from his living room couch in Iowa City. "What motivates you to write your poetry?" the news anchor asked. Watching the interview online, I could see Savarese briefly turn his head away from the camera, as if to compose a thought. He leaned in toward his laptop, a MacBook Pro that doubles as his communication device, and tapped a few keys to activate a synthesized voice. "Poetry offers me a way to answer less and converse more." .

In 2021, DJ Savarese was awarded an Iowa Arts Fellowship to pursue a MFA in creative writing at the University of Iowa

"At a time when fear dominates the airwaves," he continued, "poetry reawakens the senses and dislodges us from a strictly meaning-based experience, freeing ideas to mingle across boundaries of the brain and moving us beyond artificial, classificatory constructions of power." He swayed and nodded to his sentences, which rose and fell like music.

I shifted my attention to trying to figure out Savarese’s technical setup. I didn’t see any wires or devices in the frame. Was he using a brain chip to wirelessly transmit his thoughts to a word-processing application on his computer? I wondered, "Am I looking at the future here?"There was a reason for my particular focus: at the time, I’d been researching augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technology for my daughter, who is five years old and also non-speaking. Underwhelmed by the available options—a handful of iPad apps that look (and work) as if they were coded in the 1990s—I’d delved into the speculative, more exciting world of brain-computer interfaces. Could a brain chip allow my daughter to verbally express herself with the same minimal effort it takes me to open my mouth and speak? How might she sound, telling me about her day at school? Singing "Happy Birthday" or saying "Mama"? I wanted the future to be here now.

Discussions surrounding brain-computer interfaces are growing as increasingly easier technologies are developed to help people with autism communicate more easily

But watching Savarese revealed magical thinking on my part. Behind the curtain, the mechanics of his participation were extremely low tech—kind of janky, in fact.The process didn’t fit the mold of what I thought technology should do: take the work out of a manual operation and make it faster and easier. The network had invited Savarese onto the program and a producer had emailed the questions to him in advance. To prepare, Savarese had spent about 15 minutes typing his answers into a Microsoft Word file. When it came time for the live interview, the anchorman recited the questions, to which Savarese responded on his MacBook by using Word’s "Read Aloud" function to speak his pre-composed answers. The types of readily available technology that could power an assistive communication device—AI, natural-language processing, word prediction, voice banking, eye-gaze tracking—played no role here. And yet, without any of the features I’d exalt as the modern standards of assistive technology, Savarese was fluent, eloquent, and literate.

At the time of the interview, DJ was living in Iowa City where he grew up and raised by his single mother

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