Autism + Technology: What’s My Strategy?
Recently, my son was using our shared “home phone” for texting family members. My son is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD and is in middle school. He has limited access to devices, but enjoys video games, coding, and pretty much anything on the computer, as many of his peers with autism do.
Unbeknownst to me, one of my older kids used a ghost number to start texting with my son under the guise of an “AI Chatbot” which he called “Karen.”
Thinking he was conversing with a computer, my son quickly divulged his name, age, birthdate, school name, the general location of our house, his favorite games, the names of his siblings, and even his allergies. In addition, he shared a photo of himself, he used inappropriate language that I wasn’t even aware he knew, and he worked hard to ‘provoke’ the “Chatbot” with outrageous responses.
Of course, my older kids, who all took three comprehensive years of Cyber Civics classes in middle school and are (I say this quite proudly) knowledgeable digital citizens, knew right away that their brother was in very dangerous territory sharing all this information online. In fact, my child who started this prank came to tell me about it knowing that her brother didn’t seem to have any idea that what he was sharing could be harmful.
It was a big wake-up call for me because our family frequently talks about privacy, safety, and balance regarding our digital lives. The fact that my son was “doxxing” himself (the act of publicly providing personally identifiable information about an individual or organization, usually via the Internet) and that he totally trusted that the ‘person’ on the other end of this conversation was a computer and not an actual human being prompted me to strategize in a new way.
MIDDLE SCHOOL CHILD WITH AUTISM + DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY = WHAT’S MY STRATEGY?
If you have a person with autism, you already know that autistic kids are awesome. We also know that these sometimes-quirky kids can view the world and other people’s intentions very differently than their neurotypical peers. It is often almost impossible for them to imagine another person’s intentions. Inferences, reading social cues, predicting future consequences, recognizing teasing and dishonesty, and making rapid succession choices are not strong suits for many kids on the spectrum. These critical aspects of digital safety are the primary reasons why Cyber Civics is taught in middle school when students have more of the developmental tools to be able to make these judgments.
It goes without saying that all of these issues mentioned above are ones neurotypical young people encounter too and that not everyone with autism will be vulnerable in each of these ways. That is why it is called the “spectrum!” If nothing else, this is an important reminder that having more conversations about online safety and privacy and putting more parental controls and safeguards in place can only help.
Kids on the spectrum tend to respond better to clear, black-and-white directions and guidelines. Here are some suggested guidelines:
Give them explicit words to use to ask for help.
Give them specific examples of things they should report.
Set clear boundaries on time and access to specific apps, games, and sites. Parental Controls with time limits can be helpful, as they are very black and white.
Consider your child’s developmental ‘age,’ as well as their physical age when deciding which apps, games, sites, and media are appropriate for them.
Consider holding off on social media until your child’s peers have more tools for appropriate online behavior (i.e., wait until the end of middle school or high school).
Implement parental controls and monitoring software to limit access to inappropriate content and provide additional oversight. Many parental controls allow you to switch off the interaction or chat options in most apps and games.
Review and discuss online usage and interactions with your student.
Age appropriately, supervise your child, and/or have games and computers located in the common space.
Some areas to watch:
Doing an online search for nearly anything can lead to an online scrolling rabbit hole, as many of us know. For autistic kids who often have self-regulation, impulse control, and time management challenges, boundary setting can be even more difficult. Intense focus and sometimes obsessions are hallmarks of kids on the spectrum, too, so setting kids up to be balanced and to use their time online in a productive way, is even more critical.
Cyberbullying is the number one concern most parents of kids with autism face. As mentioned above, the inability to effectively read cues and social norms is challenging via text or direct message for many teens and tweens, and kids on the spectrum may struggle with this for most of their lives. Many kids with autism tend to ‘stand out’ or be noticed for their unconventional hobbies or behavior, which makes them an easy target for bullies.
In addition, I have witnessed kids on the spectrum who are the ones doing the cyberbullying, though this is rare. This is often learned behavior from being bullied themselves.
Setting expectations of appropriate behavior online should be clear: the expectations apply to everyone.
Predators & Grooming
It is crucial that both kids with autism and their parents/caregivers are educated about online safety, including the risks associated with sharing personal information and interacting with strangers. Providing clear guidelines and teaching them how to identify potential dangers can empower kids with autism to make informed decisions and protect themselves. Open and ongoing communication between caregivers and children is essential, as it allows for discussing online experiences, addressing concerns, and reinforcing safe practices.
Teach your child to recognize manipulative tactics and grooming behaviors commonly used by predators, such as flattery, secrecy, and attempts to isolate them. Provide them with examples and scenarios to enhance their understanding.
If you have questions about your child’s ability to discern intent from other people and have chosen to allow or enable social media interaction via direct messages or chatting, consider reviewing your child’s activities in this area in order to provide ongoing support.
Positive Community & Personal Interests
Teaching children about limits, balance, and appropriate behavior online is just as important as showing them how technology can be a tool that can be used for good! Helping your child find their interests and letting them share those interests with you, is a great way to have insight into their world. Simply listening when they want to share what they are doing online will foster a healthy attitude toward technology and spur conversation around these critical topics.
Encourage your child, who may be led strongly by their one-track interests, to branch out by doing research on their curiosities. Kids who are into Minecraft might enjoy one of several Minecraft coding apps and online classes, for example. I’m always working to expand my autistic child’s world a bit more.
The Cyber Civics curriculum is helpful and appropriate for all students, including many kids on the Autism spectrum. If your school doesn’t currently teach Media Literacy or Digital Citizenship curriculum, you or a representative from your school can reach out to us to learn more about how to bring this tried and true program to your school community. We also offer Community Presentations and Educator Workshops tailored to your community’s needs.
Soni Albright is a long-time media-literacy educator, middle school and high school teacher, and Waldorf School Administrator. She’s the proud mom to four (sometimes emerging) digital citizens.