Lion to Autism–Jamie Knight

CSUN and King of the Jungle--why lion reigns over technology. Image left: Scenes from CSUN conference. Image right Jamie giving a presentation with lion

“Can I pet your dog?” is a question that is rarely heard at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference. Participants, speakers, and even hotel staff simply don’t ask. If it’s March, it’s conference season, and service dogs and their owners descend en masse to San Diego. These dogs are working as service animals: assisting people who are blind, have epilepsy, or need emotional support. You wouldn’t ask to pet someone’s wheelchair. Indeed, the CSUN Conference, now spanning over 30 years, highlights the best and most innovative technology and research used to accommodate people with disabilities, but also developed by people with disabilities.

Most participants, vendors, and attendees have an accommodation that work best for them. There’s little judgment at CSUN, for after the last session of the day wraps up, it becomes the largest and most inclusive party on the West Coast. When we met Jamie Knight, a software developer out of the United Kingdom working for the BBC, we got to meet Lion as well.

Jamie has autism. Characterized by difficulties with communication and forming relationships with others, autism can make interpersonal relationships tricky for some, impossible for others. Jamie, though, has Lion. Not a real lion, of course, although that would be quite a standout in the menagerie of dogs at the CSUN conference. Lion is a four-foot-tall stuffed animal that is Jamie’s accommodation. He helps Jamie ground himself and engage in conversation. He enables Jamie to participate in jam-packed conferences, go out with friends, and be productive at work. As Jamie shares, “The autistic guy with a giant lion is pretty memorable”.

For all intents and purposes, Lion is absolutely no different than a sentient, living and breathing, service dog. Of course, Jamie knows he isn’t real, but for Jamie, Lion is the accommodation that fills his backpack, has Twitter followers, and makes him a more cogent software engineer.

Why a large stuffed lion?

check this out

As Jamie shares, Lion has weight and substance. He provides structure in a world that is chaotic. Given to him as a young child to help with speech and language development, it was a perfect fit. Jamie and Lion go to work together, go to conferences together, and even blog together. It’s a match made in heaven, even if slightly less conventional than the technology that usually adorns the CSUN conference. How does Lion, with a ‘fluff brain,’ as Jamie says, stack up against the latest tech?

The exhibit hall of this and many technology conferences promises time savers and life enhancers. Indeed, as Jamie shared and we witnessed, we learned about squeeze vests and apps to track procedures, develop routines, create organizers, become more effective communicators, and obtain books that help a person with autism maintain structure and balance. Jamie likes iBookstore, which gives him endless access to books on various topics, without having to navigate a brick and mortar library. Autism Speaks has a detailed list of apps for download they have shared on their website. Still—can technology replace paws?

One of the reasons why Lion is such a benefit to Jamie is that it is personifying, despite its leonine background. Lion’s owner is a person with thoughts and emotions. Apps may dehumanize. We’ve seen a backlash with South by Southwest’s well meaning but ultimately extremely ableist hashtag of #EndOfDisability, proclaiming that technology can end disability as we know it. Lion is disruptive without being offensive. James shares that when “…people don’t know what’s different, they assign madness. Lion is an indication there is something different there.”

Different is good. Sure, as Jamie puts it, interesting means you get poked at by doctors, but it can also open you up to different experiences. Lion gives hugs when Jamie cannot. Even within the realm of accessibility, Lion is the demographic of user that Jamie develops around. Lion’s paws have no dexterity, can’t use a mouse, his ears are cloth and his vision is bad, but perhaps the clincher: his fluff brain. Too often, many of us see how technology will benefit just us, or those very nearby. Lion might be the closest test case to universal design there is.

Others with autism use stuffed animals for accommodations, and they have seen tremendous benefits in helping people with anxiety, ADHD and PTSD. Are Lion and his friends going to replace those products on the app anytime soon? Unlikely, but there’s no reason not to find your spirit stuffed animal. The author herself admits she has a penguin named BoBo. Stuffed animals are an inexpensive and reasonable solution to a complex problem. There was a time when Jamie couldn’t talk in front of people, and was best at communicating via email or text. Now, he’s king of the jungle, that is the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, roaring a message of inclusion and accessibility

check this out

Read more articles from the David Koechner Issue.

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: