Social Media and Autism: Benefits and Risk Factors Assessed

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Studies find that teens and adults with autism can benefit from the social interactions they experience through their Facebook connections. A 2018 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking by Deborah M. Ward and colleagues at the School of Psychology of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California revealed “adults with autism spectrum disorder who use Facebook in moderation tend to be happier than those who do not.”

Likewise, a 2017 study by the Yale Department of Psychiatry and Yale Child Study Center, researchers found that “adolescents with autism spectrum disorder derive high friendship quality through their use of social media.”

The studies’ findings aren’t surprising.  Many individuals with autism desire friendships, but struggle with face-to-face interactions that require them to read body language and facial cues, understand jokes, irony and sarcasm and respond quickly, verbally and appropriately in real time. Online communication diminishes the need for many of these social skills, and significantly reduces the social anxiety of people with autism.

Yet, just as social media use comes with a level of risk for neuro-typical adolescents and adults, it can be detrimental to individuals with autism if not used responsibly.

A group of researchers at University College of London studied the use of social media in teens with autism and created the “Rough Guide to Using Social Media for Teens with Autism” and the “Rough Guide to Using Social Media for Parents of Teens with Autism.”

The guide for teens acknowledges that social media provides great opportunities for staying in touch and meeting new friends; finding communities of people with similar interests; and learning and sharing information and opinions — while also providing advice on how to avoid the safety risks of interacting with strangers online. For example, the guide advises young social media users not to give out personal information such as addresses, phone numbers or passwords; not to arrange meetings with people on the internet without checking with an adult first; blocking people whose comments are offensive; and taking a break before responding to comments or questions that make the teen feel uncomfortable, upset or confused.

Similarly, the guide for parents points out the ways in which social media can help teens with autism learn to navigate social situations and meet other teens with autism who share their interests. Parents are encouraged to talk with their teens about their social media use on a regular basis and to set clear guidelines about what can be shared online. “Agree what your child can share on their own and what needs to be approved by you first,” says the guide, which also “discourages engagement with trolls or cyber-bullies…” and advises parents to help their children “to understand jokes, sarcasm, lies or irony” they will likely encounter online.

Technology and the internet can open doors for children with autism and other conditions that limit their ability to communicate and form relationships. Enabling Devices offers a range of communicators, iPad accessories, mounts and switches that help people with disabilities to connect to others and to access the world.

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