The internet can be a powerful platform and huge resource for the autistic community. A wealth of information and supports are available online in an accessible and practical manner. Social media has empowered friends, family members, professionals and those living with autism to connect with one another, sharing their stories, experiences and advice with one another.

It is nonetheless important to be cautious and mindful of one’s personal safety when using the internet. Autistic individuals. Several studies have indicated that children living with autism often spend more of their time on the internet than their neurotypical peers do. In this article, we go over some of the key challenges the online world has and what you can do to mitigate those risks.

CYBER-BULLING AND ABUSE

Online bullying and exploitation are, unfortunately, very real problems. What can make autistic internet users especially vulnerable are the difficulties in reading other people’s language and tone online. Things like sarcasm and inferences cannot be gauged as well in text as they can be in person. Understanding certain kinds of jokes, catching out false news and scams and understanding people’s intentions are therefore much harder over the internet.

Many of these risks are nonetheless manageable with the right supports in place.

WHAT CAN I DO?

  • Manage your friends smartly – never accept friend requests from people whom you don’t know. Don’t ever feel that you need to match the amount of friends and followers your other friends might have. When you join groups or chatrooms, feel free to talk and interact, but be smart about what you talk about and who to. Don’t ever give away private information on open forums, no matter how nicely or often the other person may ask.
  • Mind what you see – research the social network you or your child wants to join. Some websites are entirely anonymous and let their users post almost anything on other people’s pages; these are best avoided. Most networks do regulate what’s publicly posted on to them, but personal messaging is entirely private. Sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have parental guides and settings which can limit what content children may or may not view whilst online.
  • Protect your identity – when you join an online forum or chatroom, take care not to share any personal information in your profile that could be used to identify you, where you live or where you work. Use a username that’s different to your own name and avoid using a picture of yourself or that includes you.

ONLINE ADDICTION AND OBSESSIVENESS

It can be a challenge for a lot of us to go offline for just the day. Social media has become such a regular part of our online experience that it’s almost routine now to inspect our emails, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds several times throughout working day. It can even reach a point where if we’ve misplaced our phone or PC, we might feel a very tangible sense of disconnection and distress as we’re unable to communicate with our networks.

Autistic individuals are especially at risk for these hazards, particularly when it comes to using social media and online gaming. Excessive posting, messaging, spending most of their waking hours over a device and even visible anxiety at the prospect of logging off the internet might indicate that they may have a problem.

WHAT CAN I DO?

  • ‘Internet Time’ – this can work effectively if you or your family member’s daily routine is regimented and has an explicit structure to follow. Set out a time during the day, ideally in the evening after school and work are over, to go online for leisure. How long you think it should be is up to you, but ‘Internet Time’ – this can work effectively if you or your family member’s daily routine is regimented and has an explicit structure to follow. Set out a time during the day, ideally in the evening after school and work are over, to go online for leisure. How long you think this should be is up to you, but the HSE advises not to spend more than an hour before a display screen at any time and to take regular 5-10-minute breaks between sessions.
  • Task manage – assign specific devices for specific tasks. The internet is becoming increasingly accessible on all kinds of devices. If you use a computer for school or for work, only use it for those purposes. Keep mobile phones out of way and in a safe place during the day if you think it’s seriously distracting you or your child and arrange alternative means of contact.
  • Smart social networking – the sheer range of different social media sites is enough to overwhelm anyone. With more of our peers setting up accounts on various networks, there’s a real pressure for us to remain connected with them as much as we can. This makes it hard to keep track of different feeds and separate accounts, especially if you have to pay to have one. If you’ve multiple accounts but find yourself only using the one or two, it’s better to deactivate those you don’t use often.

MISSPENDING MONEY

The online shopping experience can be a huge boon for all of us, especially for the autistic community. Users are spared what can be daunting prospects of doing the weekly shop in bustling shops and streets and can order specific items to their doorsteps from the comfort of their own homes. Gaming has become especially popular as consoles continue to move more and more of their products and services online.

Beware, however, that these aspects can also be addictive and exploitative as some games require users to pay extra money to continue playing or buy extra content to improve their experiences.

WHAT CAN I DO?

  • Mind your money – if you’re concerned that your child is spending too much of their own or your money online, most devices can now be set up to require parental permission in order to purchase anything, so check that this is switched on.
  • Watch those cookies – be careful of where you give out your credit and debit card details to when buying and selling online. Most apps and websites store the data you give them to make the process smoother through computer cookies. There are often options to refuse these and delete them but caution should nonetheless be exercised when setting up payments over the internet.

 

USEFUL INFORMATION AND WEBSITES

Webwise.ie’s tips for setting up parental controls on various devices and websites

The Office for Internet Safety’s website

MakeITsecure.ie’s Online Security Guide