iPhone independence – what if the phone dies?

The premise of Smartphones for All is that a carefully configured iPhone can support greater independence for teens and adults with cognitive disabilities (Explorers), just as an electric wheelchair supports independence for someone with a motor disability.

What happens when the wheelchair breaks? That’s when a phone is handy. Pull over and call for help. Just like when a car breaks down.

Likewise, what happens when an Explorer’s iPhone is lost, stolen, or broken? In this case an Explorer can just … umm … right. This is a hard problem, one I hadn’t considered until recently.

We haven’t had a dead iPhone crisis yet. Our Explorers are very careful with their iPhones, more careful than they are with anything else. “Bob” always carries an auxiliary power supply, he’s never close to losing power. He loses everything but his phone; we recently switched him to a wallet phone case so he won’t lose his bus pass and ID.

But even if Bob never loses his phone, it could certainly be stolen or dropped and broken. At that point his autism will intensify, he will lose language skills, he will become agitated and anxious. As an average size adult male he may make people around him fearful. He will lose memory access and be unable to recall our mobile numbers. He could draw police attention — and even though St Paul police are among the best anywhere (they do autism training!) it would be a risky situation. If he were in Minneapolis …

“Ted” wouldn’t be in quite as much trouble. If he were on his bicycle he’d simply ride home. If he didn’t have transportation he’d be happy to seek out police assistance. He’d be more comfortable asking a stranger for help; that’s a low risk option for a strong adult male and a stranger that he chooses. (It’s a riskier option for a vulnerable female if the stranger approaches them.) Even for Ted though, advance planning would be wise.

So what do we do about this? High quality, high visibility protective cases reduce the risk of loss and breakage. Replacing an older battery reduces the risk of unexpected power loss. We will have both Explorers practice reciting E’s mobile number from memory.

We’re also developing a script that goes something like this:

  1. If your iPhone is stolen or lost don’t try to recover it. We will replace it. (Bob will be particularly anxious about being blamed for the loss or breakage.)
  2. Find somewhere quiet to sit or walk alone and practice calming. This may take 15 to 30 minutes.
  3. If you are at work or school you can ask for help from an official. If you are in a retail store or restaurant ask for help from the manager. In other spaces look for help from a police officer or other official. If you approach a stranger choose a larger male rather than a smaller woman, they will be less nervous.
  4. Explain that you have autism, have lost your phone, and are in trouble. Ask if the person helping you can make a call for you to your mother.
  5. If you can’t reach Mom take a break and try again in 15 minutes. If you approached a stranger let them go, you’ll work with someone else for the second try.
  6. If you still can’t reach Mom or an official then ask a stranger to call 911 for police emergency and explain that you have autism to the dispatcher. Then wait for the police to arrive.

This is a complicated script. My current thought is to print a modified version on one side of a business card. The other side would explain about our Explorer’s disability and have more extensive contact information. We’d print hundreds of these and regularly put them into pants pockets.

We could also buy a device that would print/label clothing and put E’s contact number onto clothing — along with a TinyURL for more information.

Perhaps one day our Explorers may carry a backup phone in the form of a smartwatch with SIM card. That’s a relatively expensive option for now but I’m considering it.

I’m going to have to work this into a book chapter.


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