What’s the internet like for young people on the autism spectrum?

College students talk about their lives online - and experts explain the challenges and advantages of digital tech.

Tech and the online world
By Parent Zone ·

Students at Carshalton College, interviewed by Calum Bradbury-Sparvell

Young people

Autism online

Many thanks to the students at Carshalton College for volunteering their time and thoughts.

What’s the internet like for young people on the autism spectrum? According to those young people themselves, that’s a bit of a weird question. 'I don’t know,' 16-year-old Cassie* answered, 'because I’ve never used it without autism.'

'No matter if you’re autistic or not, it’ll always be a hit-or-miss experience,' 20-year-old Samuel told me. 'Hits? You’ll come across stuff that is neat or entertaining, and there are a lot of creative people on the internet. Misses? The trolls, the cyberbullies, the stupid people who can’t construct their reasons. That and there’s a lot of boring stuff.'

Like everyone else, young people on the autism spectrum enjoy going online for a multitude of reasons. Cassie finds biking videos on YouTube and keeps up with friends on Instagram. Samuel knows a lot about cartoons, which he watches and researches online. Brothers Jacob* and Max* - both 16 - like to keep up with football and wrestling.

Equally, many of the students I spoke to wanted to get away from tech sometimes. Benjamin* - also 16 - is constantly getting notifications. 'Since sitting here talking to you, I’ve been ignoring people for so long. I have so many messages,' he said. 'I’m more of an outside person anyway – I like to vibe, connect, communicate.'

Talking of communicating, does the internet reduce the anxiety that new social situations and face-to-face interactions can sometimes cause? For some people, maybe - but not Samuel. 'Talking to people online doesn’t have the same feeling as when you’re talking to someone near you. It doesn’t feel as comfortable,' he says. Max was reluctant to rely on the internet, too: 'it’s better to challenge yourself and talk to them in person.' Jacob felt that any kind of communication was good practice because 'speaking up and socialising more can boost your confidence.'

Those on the autism spectrum often develop an ‘intense interest’. Could the online world affect that, perhaps by making it easier to research, and to find like-minded people? Samuel wasn’t sure. 'Maybe [as a person with autism], you are more addicted to your personal preference that the internet allows you to focus on,' he said. 'But I can’t really say if it is that different.' After all, plenty of neurotypical people identify themselves by a passion or hobby, too.

Had the students ever been targeted for their autism online? Unfortunately, yes. 'People think we’re stupid and can’t look after ourselves,' said Cassie. '"Can you get yourself dressed? Can you get the bus?" We can do all the things people that aren’t autistic can do.'

According to Samuel, there are also 'people who try to get away with being unpleasant and hide it by saying "it’s just the internet."' They use autism as an insult, claim that they’re joking, and then blame the autism when the victim takes it seriously. Max has been made fun of, too. 'Sometimes people ask you maths questions and laugh at you if you get it wrong.'

Lacking everyday skills, taking things too seriously, being good at maths - these are all classic stereotypes about autism. Another is resisting change. But Benjamin says, 'autistic people can change – I can change. I couldn’t speak when I was five, but when I got help I built up to paying attention in lessons.'

How would these young people improve the internet? 'I wouldn’t change anything,” said Cassie. 'I’ve never experienced bullying or anything like that. It’s not perfect, but for me… I’ve always enjoyed it.' Samuel agreed. 'I don’t think you can improve the internet. Much like life itself, it’s unpredictable.'

So if they aren’t keen on redesigning the online world any time soon, what advice would they give other young people on the autism spectrum?

  • 'You can talk to your parent or guardian – anything about autism, or anything you don’t understand. They might know more.' (Jacob)
  • 'Learn from your mistakes – step by step – and then you’ll understand it and it’ll never happen again. It helps you to become a better person.' (Max)
  • 'Usually ignoring the cyberbullies is one of the best methods, but if they keep trying to harm you, it’s best to tell a parent or guardian.' (Samuel)
  • 'Make sure you know what you’re doing – think before you make your next move. Be careful who you talk to. Never give your bank details to anyone. Don’t surround yourself with bad people – hang around with people who make you feel happy.' (Benjamin)
  • 'Look out for suspicious URLs – including ones that you don’t know. The ones that have a lot of letters and numbers, without the dot com thingy.' (Jacob)

*We have used fake names to protect the identities of some of the young people.

Jo Galloway

Jo Galloway is executive principal of the National Autistic Society’s Vanguard School, which opened in January 2020. Jo has worked for 23 years in education, including as principal of four schools.

What is the internet like for children and young people on the autism spectrum?

The internet is a vital part of everyday life for most of us. It can help us to connect with others, watch TV, pay bills and so much more - and that’s no different for the 140,000 children and autistic young people in the UK.

For those children and young people, the opportunities offered by digital tech can be amazing - but there are dangers to look out for, too.

Autism

Almost everyone has heard of autism but far too few people understand what it’s actually like to be autistic.

If you‘re on the autism spectrum - or you know a friend or family member who is - you probably appreciate that there are challenges as well as unique strengths. Some children and young people on the autism spectrum may struggle to communicate or feel intense anxiety in social situations, especially when they’re not given enough time to process questions and instructions.

Making friends

Many autistic children and young people rely on routine to manage anxiety - and they appreciate the control and predictability that digital tech can offer.

The internet can help you negotiate certain challenges, particularly communication difficulties. If you struggle to make friends, it can offer alternative ways of finding other children with shared interests - for instance through social media, online gaming or YouTube. These platforms can create a sense of belonging and show that there are other people out there who feel like you.

Online interaction is often on your own terms: you can access the internet from a familiar environment, ike your home. This can remove some of the anxiety of face-to-face interactions, reduce worries over not being given enough time to process information, and lower the chances of something unexpected happening around you.

It can also give you the chance to develop and rehearse social skills in a less pressurised environment, which can boost your confidence. And if meeting people in real life, you can plan a route or familiarise yourself with somewhere new online, so you feel less anxious about travelling.

In education

The internet can be a fantastic tool to make your lessons more engaging or bring topics to life. At the National Autistic Society, we use a range of devices and technologies with students including iPads, story mats, and interactive whiteboards.

Lots of us have struggled to concentrate in class at some point in our lives, but tech can make a big difference. We’ve found that it can motivate and engage students while helping them develop new skills, improve concentration, and spend time with other young people, teachers and parents.

Tech can’t and shouldn’t replace teachers - and it's only one of the ways to support a child or young person in school. We believe that each student’s education should be developed around them, so we incorporate their interests into their school day.

For instance, if an autistic child or young person is interested in gaming but struggling to connect with their history class, we might help them bring it to life using GamesMaker Studio, animation, and even Minecraft. On top of this, we help them transfer the skills they’re developing online - for instance on social media - into real world scenarios and face-to-face situations.

Wider risks

Despite the wonderful opportunities offered by the online world, there are all the usual risks - and autistic children, young people, and adults can be particularly vulnerable because of the difficulties they may face in communicating and interacting with others. This can make it hard to understand the intentions and motivations of other people, particularly online.

If you have any concerns or want to talk to anyone about yourself or a friend don’t hesitate to speak to someone.

SMART is a very useful and easy to remember acronym, which I hope will help. It stands for:

  • S - Stay safe: don’t give out your personal information (like your date of birth, mobile number or address) to people/places you don’t know.
  • M – Don’t Meet up: Meeting someone you have only been in touch with online can be dangerous. Always check with an adult you trust.
  • A – Accepting files – Accepting emails or downloading files, pictures or texts from people you don’t know can cause problems, like viruses.
  • R – Reliable: Check information before you believe it. For example, is the person or website telling the truth?
  • T – Tell someone: Tell an adult if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable online.

Find out more about autism and the National Autistic Society’s Vanguard School

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What’s the internet like for young people on the autism spectrum?

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