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How My Son on the Autism Spectrum Uses Google Maps to Communicate

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If there is one thing my son Isaac has taught me in the last eight years, it is this:

Communication is much more than words.

Isaac has autism. He is nonverbal and has global delay, significant learning difficulties and NF1. For a few years now, he has taught himself to communicate via Google Street View maps, and he excels at this. It is a different way of communicating, but it works better for him than speech or any traditional communication app he’s used.

Boy using Google Street Maps view on iPad
Miriam’s son using Google Street View maps

Wherever I take Isaac, whether it is somewhere he is familiar with, or hundreds of miles away to a place he has never been before, he has a special talent of retracing the exact route once home using just Google Street View maps and his incredible memory.

In the summer of 2014, when he was just 6 years old, we went on holiday to a cottage 120 miles from home. Yet a week later, he retraced the exact route we traveled, including stopping at the very same service station we took a comfort break at! I was amazed at this incredible talent.

He attends a school for children with complex needs that is 14 miles from home, yet he takes himself there by memory via Google Street View map every afternoon once home. I wondered if this ability came from him making the same journey daily or if he had the location stored. But one day I watched him, and what I witnessed gave me insight into this part of his world. Watching him using Google Street View map gave me peace of mind as he showed me step by step the route his taxi goes and even where the car parks to get him out. In fact, he even took me to the door of the building he goes into, all without speaking a word.

He uses Google Street View map for his every communication need now. If he is hungry, he uses it to show travel from his home address to a nearby restaurant and brings his iPad to show me. If he wants to go out, he uses it to show me where he wants to go, from the church he goes to every week, to the train station, and the local park. He uses it to show me the way to his gran’s house and to shopping centers to tell me he wants to go and watch lifts.

He has discovered he can enter a local hotel using street map, and this has opened up new, unique ways for him to communicate, too. For example, he goes into rooms in the hotel and finds an ensuite to communicate he wants a bath at night. When ready for bed, he moves around the rooms until he finds a bed and points at it.

He finds my car in the driveway to ask to go in the car. He finds a clothes shop to get him dressed.

When he was highly distressed one day and I could not help him calm, I put Google Street View map on, and he moved around to show me there was a door open somewhere he could see, and that was what was causing his upset. I was in awe of his ability to find such an ingenious way to communicate.

Two weeks ago, he shocked me once again. He was more lethargic than usual and quiet (he is nonverbal but does make noise). He came and sat beside me and used his skills on Google Street View map to take himself to the doctor’s! For the first time ever, he was able to tell me he was feeling unwell. This was incredible for us! I cried. It was nothing serious, thankfully, but he was able to say he communicated he was not feeling good to a doctor. Isaac has found a way to connect with others that is as unique and special as he is.

Follow this journey on Faithmummy.

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Originally published: December 29, 2016
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