In this day and age, it often seems like our world revolves around the internet. Everywhere we turn, there are teens and tweens “Google-ing it”, “Friend-ing someone”, or “Tweeting” about the latest news updates. Technology and the internet offer great opportunities for learning and equipping young people with tools to learn, communicate, and play. Individuals with autism, just like other typical teenagers, are equally as interested in using the internet as a portal to mass information or connection to millions of people.
But, while we recognise the great opportunities that lie in the internet, we also recognise that alongside these benefits are many risks that put youngsters with autism in vulnerable positions, including their conduct towards others, cyberbullying, contact with strangers, exposure to inappropriate content and trustworthiness of information (Childnet, 2015).
To ensure that your child is utilising the internet safely and successfully, it is important for your child with autism to understand and learn how to protect themselves on the web, and what is or isn’t appropriate on the internet. The following is a toolkit that will help parents explore internet safety with young people with autism.
The following is taken from Childnet’s STAR program toolkit.
Childnet’s STAR program toolkit is a great resource tool with practical advise on how to explore internet safety with young people with autism. Developed in partnership with Leicester City Council, UK, the STAR program is made up of 4 sections (S.T.A.R).
S afe – Keep your personal information safe
T rust – Not everything online is true
A ction – Always stop and tell someone if anything upsets you online
R espect – Be kind online
The internet is a wonderful place to share information and photographs, it’s a place to communicate with friends, to discover new information and to play games. However, due to the vast range of platforms young people might be using on the internet (for example, online games, social networking sites, online forums) it’s imperative that we are reinforcing the message to young people about where they could be sharing their personal information and how not to do it.
There are types of information that is not appropriate to share with everyone online (eg. with strangers), and there is other information that one can freely share with anyone. It is challenging for learners with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to differentiate between what information is OK to share online, and what information is not OK to share. Within this context, take the time to teach your child what personal information (full name, home address, school name, passwords, etc.) need to be kept private.
Resource: SAFE toolkit
While the internet provides limitless access to information on a variety of topics, the exciting new world of discovery also provides an increased amount of freedom about what your teen can connect to and who they can communicate with online. This increased freedom also presents a number of challenges in the reliability of content found on the internet. These challenges are faced by anyone using the internet but are sometimes magnified for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who may find it difficult to critically evaluate information they find online. The main challenge concerns reliability; both of information and other users.
Remind your child that everyone has a different opinion or belief. As most internet content are created by someone, what is written and shared often reflect the personal opinion of the person who wrote it. Discuss with your child and come up with a plan on how to react if they do not agree to the content written or shared.
Encourage your child to always check at least three websites before sharing a piece of information or searching for information. If facts do not match, encourage them to explore more websites to check the reliability of information.
Encourage your child to ask you, teachers, siblings or friends to ask for help when they are searching for information to make sure they are on the right track.
Create a list of trusted sites that your child can explore to find information and save them as favourites or bookmarks.
Resource: TRUST toolkit
The internet offers a wealth of opportunity and enjoyment to young people, be it for discovering new information, communication, recreational purposes, or learning. Many young people with autism spectrum disorders are no exception when it comes to internet use. However, the areas of risk that each will face can differ greatly due to the broad nature of the autistic spectrum. It is likely that there will be safety issues and support will be needed to promote safe use of the online world.
In the process of promoting internet safety for your child, it is also critical to encourage your child to take positive action if something upsets them online, and have the courage to tell a trusted adult what is happening. Often, many young people are susceptible to terrorising activities such as Cyberbullying, Inappropriate Content, and Online Grooming.
Cyberbullying includes things such as sending hurtful text messages or emails, or setting up a hate group on a social networking site. Images and text messages can be circulated very quickly and widely on the internet which makes it very hard to combat cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can cause much distress to a young person.
Search engines play a primary role when using the internet. Whether you are looking for a particular website or want to research a subject matter by using one key word, the internet can offer a wealth of information. However, with this also comes the obvious risk of encountering inappropriate or upsetting images. Young people with ASD may be even more vulnerable to this, especially if they have limited typing skills and are more vulnerable to mistyping words.
Online grooming is the process by which someone with a sexual interest in children will approach a child online, with the intention of developing a relationship with that child, to be able to meet them in person and intentionally cause harm. In many cases it can be an adult contacting a child under the guise of a false identity (i.e. pretending to be a teenager). This is an area in which young people with ASD are particularly vulnerable as they may perceive everything told to them by another person online to be the truth, may not question the directions in which online conversations head and may not realise the importance of not meeting up in person with someone they’ve only met online.
Resource: ACTION toolkit
Regardless of whether another user online is considered to be a friend or not, the need to show respect is very important and should be encouraged in the same way as it is offline.
The concept of friendship is a complex one for many young people, and can prove especially challenging for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who find social interactions difficult. Online interactions can offer young people with ASD a positive option, as young people find it easier to express themselves through a screen rather than face to face. It can be very easy for them to consider the people they chat to online as being ‘friends’ but it is important to make a distinction between offline and online friends in terms of the trust they can place in those friends.
Resource: RESPECT toolkit
Childnet International (2015). STAR Toolkit. Retrieved from: http://www.childnet.com/resources/star-toolkit