Social media offers benefits for autistic communityBy Lydia Wayman
Lydia is an autistic author, speaker, blogger and advocate from Pittsburgh.
There is no question that social media has changed the way people interact. We hear a lot about the lack of face-to-face conversations, perpetual access to communication, a source of distraction that takes us out of the moment. But for me, like many autistic people, those same factors mean that social media has opened up the world in a way face-to-face socialization never could.
I could describe all the good things in my life that have come from social media, but I am just one person with one experience, so I asked my autistic friends: How have you benefited from social media? (Note: I am using “social media” broadly to mean almost any means of connecting with others directly via the Internet.)
“Social media gives me the opportunity to type to friends and be social in a way that is easiest for me.”
Most autistic people want to socialize — the problem is that social settings tend to be confusing, overwhelming and not very sensory-friendly. On social media, we can interact without the added stress of a chaotic environment. Typing is often a less demanding form of communication that lets us express ourselves authentically and get to know people more easily.
“I use social media to connect with others with the same interests.”
Many autistic adults prefer to form friendships based on shared interests. Depending on what your interests are, it can be hard to find people locally who like the same things you like, or like them to the same degree. There are groups online for every interest imaginable. Some are open to people from all over the world, while others act as a gathering space for locals to plan in-person meetups. Either way, it’s a great way to meet people who share your appreciation for whatever it is you love.
"It has been wonderful to connect with people from all walks of life through social media and it has opened multiple doors for employment partnerships."
Some autistic people use separate social media accounts to display and sell their artwork or other creative services. Others write or edit articles, either about their experiences with autism or in their fields of expertise. Some have found paid work with advocacy organizations who are eager to include autistic voices.
“We used our words - our voice - as well as so many others. I changed the law now named after me… Conner’s Law.”
Self-advocacy is crucial for people with disabilities, but for those of us with communication challenges, it can be difficult. Social media is where many autistic self-advocates find their voices. Once you find your voice, you can use it however you like — to share your perspective with friends and family through photos or posts, to write articles to educate a wider audience, or even to go on a mission and change the law.
"My autistic social network is held together by Zoom, texting and e-mails. None of us live close to each other. I can't imagine how isolating it was for autistics before the Internet."
For some people, long-distance friendships can be hard to keep up. But the autistic community doesn’t lose anything across the miles and time zones because it was built and designed to exist online. One of the best things about autistic friendships is peer-to-peer mentoring. Our older autistic mentors have a unique ability to understand, teach and guide us through the challenges of being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world. We can then support those who come after us. I believe that this cycle of mentoring relationships is one of the greatest strengths of our community.
While some autistic people can use social media independently, teens and some adults with higher support needs may not, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use it at all. With the individual's consent, a support person may share artwork or photos. Posts and messages can be transcribed for those who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Some people may need help setting up a profile and choosing privacy settings, such as limiting who can see posts to friends and family. I hope parents and other support people will see the value of access to social media and consider offering support to make that possible.
Part of being a responsible social media user means learning to recognize certain risks that come with the territory of being online. It’s a good idea for everyone who uses social media to take the time to learn about these issues.
- Privacy settings
- Protecting personal information
- Doxxing (others finding personal information such as your address and publicly sharing it)
- Identifying scams and “catfishing”
- Understanding of inappropriate or illegal online behavior
- Spending too much time online
- Online bullying
Research shows that autistic people experience more bullying than their neurotypical peers, including cyber bullying. Even among the autistic community, differences of opinion can lead to reactions ranging from civil disagreement to clear harassment. So, it’s important to be able to recognize when someone crosses that line so you can set boundaries, like blocking users who are being inappropriate.
Social media platforms also come with their own version of the “hidden curriculum” — the unspoken but widely understood set of rules that governs interactions online. These things aren’t dangerous, but they are seen as socially inappropriate and can create awkward situations and sometimes spark conflict.
- Sending too many messages too frequently
- Typing in all caps
- Identifying jokes and sarcasm in text
- Ignoring trolls in the comments
- Controversial topics
- Boundaries of different one-on-one relationships
- Sharing personal stories, details or photos too publicly (“oversharing”)
Social media is far from a perfect solution to the social barriers we experience. It comes with its own pitfalls and frustrations. But while most people could rattle off a list of negatives, it feels like a little-known secret that social media is the central hub of a thriving autistic community, in some ways uniquely suited to people who want to connect but do so in an atypical way. While social media isn’t for everyone, it is a valid and meaningful form of socializing that should be discussed, encouraged and supported.
Join the Autism Speaks Adulting on the Spectrum Facebook group, a space for autistic adults to cultivate friendships, find support and have fun. The moderators of the group are autistic adults and we ask that the people that request to join have an autism diagnosis or identify as autistic.