Autism spectrum disorder includes a wide range of conditions, but it’s primarily known for challenges with social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. ASD is the second most common developmental disability in the U.S., with an estimated 1 in 54 children diagnosed each year, according to the CDC. Because it’s a spectrum disorder, the strengths and challenges are different for everyone.
Individuals on the Autism Spectrum are just as interested, if not more interested, in the Internet than their peers due to the access to information and as a means for social communication.
Autism Speaks, 2011
While many people with autism find great benefits to being online, there are risks associated with easy access to the internet, too.
What are the risks?
Researchers have divided the risks of being online for people with ASD into three categories: conduct, content and contact. Conduct risks involve using the internet in a compulsive or unhealthy manner, content risks refer to exposure to inappropriate material and contact risks involve things like cyberbullying and online scams.
Having a strong knowledge of these frameworks can help people with autism maintain a safe and healthy relationship to the internet. It’s also essential for family members and loved ones to be educated on these online threats so they can spot any warning signs.
Bullying can be one of the most troubling concerns for people with autism, whether it’s online or not. According to one survey, 63% of children with an autism spectrum disorder report having been bullied — three times more likely than their siblings. This trend unfortunately exists online, too. Another report found that kids who have a learning disability are 12% more likely to experience cyberbullying than those who do not.
Becoming a victim of a scam or hacking is another risk for people with ASD. To avoid these situations, the most important thing anyone can do is avoid giving out personal information like addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers or bank information.
Phishing is also a serious problem for anyone online. This is when scammers send emails pretending to be legitimate companies to trick you into giving them personal information or opening an attachment that contains malware. According to the FBI, these are the most common cyberattacks in the U.S., with over 241K victims in 2020.
How to recognize a phishing email
- It looks like it’s from a company you know and trust. It might even use the company’s logo and branding.
- The email says your account is on hold because of a billing issue.
- It has a generic greeting like “Hello.” If you have an account with the business, it probably wouldn’t use a generic greeting like this.
- The email invites you to click on a link to update your payment details.
The FBI recommends mitigating these risks by using a firewall, keeping your antivirus software up-to-date and shutting down your computer when you’re not using it. It’s always a good idea to double-check the email address that sent you a message before clicking any links or opening attachments.
Internet addiction is a risk for anyone who spends a lot of time online, but research suggests that people with autism are at higher risk for internet addiction, especially if they also have anxiety.
“A brain with autism has inherent characteristics that screen time exacerbates,” says child psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. “In truth, these impacts can occur in all of us, but children with autism will be both more prone to experiencing negative effects and less able to recover from them; their brains are more sensitive and less resilient.”
Setting clear time limits and restricting access to specific websites or apps can help stop internet use from becoming compulsive.
While there are plenty of excellent things to explore online, there are plenty of inappropriate and harmful websites, too. One easy way to reduce the chances of unintentionally accessing harmful content is to set up SafeSearch with Google, which is designed to block any explicit content from search results. Similarly, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube all have parental controls that can help you protect an account.
What are the benefits?
It may sound like the risks outweigh the rewards when it comes to people with ASD using the internet, but it’s actually quite the opposite. In many cases, it provides a safe space to build friendships online through organizations like Ascent Autism and Autism Society, and other organizations like Open Doors Therapy and National Autism Association help connect people with online support.
But beyond access to these kinds of resources, some researchers have theorized that the predictable rules that govern the internet are exceptionally well-suited to the processing styles of people with ASD. Everyone’s experience is different, but one study found that people with ASD enjoyed the control it gave them over their communication, the access to other people with similar interests and the opportunity to express their true selves.
The internet may be the best thing yet for improving an autistic person’s social life.
Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Author of Thinking In Pictures: My Life With Autism