Social Networking and the autistic spectrum

This is a post that I have been meaning to write for a while. As those of you who know me personally can verify, I am an avid user of Facebook and it is through Facebook that a lot of people find my blog (I post a link to my weekly blog post on my page) according to the WordPress site statistics. In general, I think that social networking is a positive thing for a lot of people throughout the autistic spectrum but, like everything in life, there is the negative side too.

First of all, I will start with the positives. The key positive aspect of social networking for me is the freedom that it gives a lot of people with Aspergers and other forms of autism. A key factor in Aspergers is feeling socially isolated. I believe that the typical online social network is an antidote to this-you can communicate and socialise with other people from the comfort of your own home. You don’t have the pressure of maintaining eye contact or trying to understand the other person’s body language. You are free to communicate openly about whatever you desire without the dreaded awkward silences or being looked at with an expression indicating complete boredom because you have obviously talked about your topic of interest for too long (a look I was so used to getting as a child that I can now interpret perfectly). There are so many special interest groups on Facebook that I would bet that almost every hobby/interest in existence is represented on Facebook. We no longer have to feel out of place because we are interested in topics that people in our off line lives have no interest in. It also removes the language barriers. A high number of people on the spectrum communicate better through typing than through speech, particularly when discussing topics that may be emotive. I have come across people online who cannot communicate verbally at all but type in a highly eloquent and articulate manner. Technology has given them freedom of expression and social networking sites have given them the opportunity to express themselves to more people.

The second positive aspect of social networking is the opportunities that it gives you, in terms of meeting other people on the autistic spectrum. Through Facebook and other Internet forums such as Wrong Planet, I have met people on all levels of the autistic spectrum who come from all over the world. This is particularly fascinating for me as I love learning about different cultures and also about how autism is treated in different countries. It is invaluable to a lot of people on the spectrum who have never met other people on the spectrum in their off line lives. I am lucky in that I know several people with Aspergers who I met as a child and at university and we meet up regularly. I know that, for a lot of people with Aspergers, they only get to socialise with other people with Aspergers online and this is why social networking sites can be invaluable to us-we realise that we are not the only people who are struggling with a certain aspect of life with our condition and we share experiences and offer support and advice. 

The third positive aspect of social networking is the way that it can be used to educate more people and raise awareness amongst a higher number of people than is possible off line. Certain videos or posts made on the Internet “go viral” almost instantly, reaching people across the world in less than 24 hours. Online petitions and campaigns can be passed around sites such as Facebook extremely quickly. A lot of people on the spectrum take on the role of online advocates, educating people about what life on the autistic spectrum is like. Autistic spectrum conditions are extremely complex and rarely fit precisely into what is written in the textbooks or medical journals. Through the Internet, awareness of what it actually feels like to live with an autistic spectrum condition has, in my opinion, risen. In my experience, most people now have some idea of what Aspergers Syndrome is. They may not be able to tell that someone has Aspergers unless that person chooses to tell them but the awareness is getting there. I am not going to pretend that there’s not still a long way to go but every little bit of awareness helps. Through blogs, YouTube videos and posts on Facebook and other social networking sites, people on the autistic spectrum are having our voices heard and listened to-this is one of the best things that social networking has brought us as a community.

There are other positives of course such as being reunited with people from your past but those are the main three. I will now move on to the negatives.

Somewhat obviously, the main negative aspect of social networking or indeed any website that has a Comments feature, is cyberbullying/”trolling”. The Internet is full of people who appear to have nothing better to do with their spare time than make hateful and vicious comments. These individuals do not just target autism sites-they consider anything as “fair game”. Indeed, some of them sink so low into the depths of humanity as to target sites set up in memory of individuals who have died, something that the majority of people would, rightly, never dream of doing. Unfortunately for the rest of us, basic human compassion is not a prerequisite for an Internet connection. It is hard to ban these individuals from sites where they have caused offence as they can just as quickly set up another account and do the same thing. A lot of people fail to realise how damaging cyberbullying is, particularly when the victim already struggles with low self esteem and feelings of isolation, as many people, both with and without autistic spectrum conditions, do. Everyone has their own issues to deal with and, for me, the fact that some small minded individuals choose to deliberately make someone feel worse than they already do is sickening.

Related to the above point is the fact that a fair number of people on the autistic spectrum have difficulties with controlling emotions. I know that, for me personally, when someone or something makes me feel bad, my mind has a tendency to fixate on it for a long period of time, hence my New Years Resolution. When people are being bombarded with malicious comments, it can be extremely hard to “switch off” from that when the way that your brain works is to continually focus on what has been said so that it goes round in a never ending loop, rather like a stuck record. This is why people should consider what they are saying before they say it as a trivial comment can often cause someone who has problems regulating their emotions untold distress and anguish. I know that there are countless people on the spectrum who were so bombarded with hurtful comments that they took their own lives. People need to stop and think and remember that every action has a consequence.

On balance, I believe that social networking is overwhelmingly positive but the negatives of it are very serious and cannot be dismissed or ignored. If everyone remembered that everyone has feelings and that hurtful comments often ruin what self esteem someone has and thus refrained from making them, the world would be a better place. Constructive criticism is fine-mindless and malicious bullying is not.

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3 Responses to Social Networking and the autistic spectrum

  1. Debbie Williams says:

    I so agree with you, and enjoy reading your posts, and hope they help many others. Xx

  2. ryanhendry94 says:

    Reblogged this on What's it like to live with Autism and commented:
    Very interesting piece, especially with a lot of media focus on the use of social networking sites, especially Facebook and Twitter.

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