Updated: Aug 8, 2022
People with autism spectrum disorder are at higher risk for cyberbullying and internet addiction, but there are also many benefits to internet use.
The internet has increasingly been an essential part of life for many people, but that digital surge hasn’t swept up everyone equally. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans with disabilities are three times more likely than those without a disability to say they never go online.
While the benefits of internet use can be profound for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there are also some risks. Studies have shown that those with autism are more susceptible to threats like cyberbullying and internet addiction. That said, being prepared with the right knowledge can help keep your internet experience safe and positive.
The internet and autism spectrum disorder
Autism spectrum disorder includes a wide range of conditions, but it’s primarily known for challenges with social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. ASD is the second most common developmental disability in the U.S., with an estimated 1 in 54 children diagnosed each year, according to the CDC. Because it’s a spectrum disorder, the strengths and challenges are different for everyone.
While many people with autism find great benefits to being online, there are risks associated with easy access to the internet, too.
What are the risks?
Researchers have divided the risks of being online for people with ASD into three categories: conduct, content and contact. Conduct risks involve using the internet in a compulsive or unhealthy manner, content risks refer to exposure to inappropriate material and contact risks involve things like cyberbullying and online scams.
Having a strong knowledge of these frameworks can help people with autism maintain a safe and healthy relationship to the internet. It’s also essential for family members and loved ones to be educated on these online threats so they can spot any warning signs.
Bullying can be one of the most troubling concerns for people with autism, whether it’s online or not. According to one survey, 63% of children with an autism spectrum disorder report having been bullied — three times more likely than their siblings. This trend unfortunately exists online, too. Another report found that kids who have a learning disability are 12% more likely to experience cyberbullying than those who do not.
Becoming a victim of a scam or hacking is another risk for people with ASD. To avoid these situations, the most important thing anyone can do is avoid giving out personal information like addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers or bank information.
Phishing is also a serious problem for anyone online. This is when scammers send emails pretending to be legitimate companies to trick you into giving them personal information or opening an attachment that contains malware. According to the FBI, these are the most common cyberattacks in the U.S., with over 241K victims in 2020.
How to recognize a phishing email
It looks like it’s from a company you know and trust. It might even use the company’s logo and branding.
The email says your account is on hold because of a billing issue.
It has a generic greeting like “Hello.” If you have an account with the business, it probably wouldn’t use a generic greeting like this.
The email invites you to click on a link to update your payment details.
The FBI recommends mitigating these risks by using a firewall, keeping your antivirus software up-to-date and shutting down your computer when you’re not using it. It’s always a good idea to double-check the email address that sent you a message before clicking any links or opening attachments.
Internet addiction is a risk for anyone who spends a lot of time online, but research suggests that people with autism are at higher risk for internet addiction, especially if they also have anxiety.
“A brain with autism has inherent characteristics that screen time exacerbates,” says child psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. “In truth, these impacts can occur in all of us, but children with autism will be both more prone to experiencing negative effects and less able to recover from them; their brains are more sensitive and less resilient.”
Setting clear time limits and restricting access to specific websites or apps can help stop internet use from becoming compulsive.
While there are plenty of excellent things to explore online, there are plenty of inappropriate and harmful websites, too. One easy way to reduce the chances of unintentionally accessing harmful content is to set up SafeSearch with Google, which is designed to block any explicit content from search results. Similarly, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube all have parental controls that can help you protect an account.
What are the benefits?
It may sound like the risks outweigh the rewards when it comes to people with ASD using the internet, but it’s actually quite the opposite. In many cases, it provides a safe space to build friendships online through organizations like Ascent Autism and Autism Society, and other organizations like Open Doors Therapy and National Autism Association help connect people with online support.
But beyond access to these kinds of resources, some researchers have theorized that the predictable rules that govern the internet are exceptionally well-suited to the processing styles of people with ASD. Everyone’s experience is different, but one study found that people with ASD enjoyed the control it gave them over their communication, the access to other people with similar interests and the opportunity to express their true selves.
In her memoir, “Thinking In Pictures: My Life With Autism,” author Temple Grandin, Ph.D., made the same connection. “My mind works just like an internet search engine that has been set to access only images,” she wrote. “The more pictures I have in the internet stored inside my brain the more templates I have of how to act in a new situation.”
Teaching internet safety
Communication is key when it comes to teaching internet safety to those with ASD. Having frequent and candid conversations about the risks of using the internet is the best thing you can do to keep the people in your life safe. And remember, it’s a group effort. Educating close friends and family members will help strengthen your support network even more.
To teach those with ASD about internet safety, an acronym called PLAY IT SAFE was developed by the UK nonprofit Cerebra.
Tips for families
In addition to conversations about staying safe online, there are a number of specific steps you can take to make the online environment more secure.
Set up filters, virus protection, parental controls and child-friendly browsers. As we went over above, Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all have parental controls and safe search settings that can help protect privacy and filter search results. You can also use a kid-safe browser to help block inappropriate content.
Set ground rules for using internet-enabled devices. Most people with autism benefit from well-defined rules. Establish some time limits and routines for using the internet and stick to them.
Discuss inappropriate content, cyberbullying, sexting and exploitation in a developmentally appropriate manner. Things like pop-up ads and misleading language can sometimes lead people with ASD to inappropriate, and sometimes illegal, content. The Center on Transition Innovations has some helpful tips for having a frank and clear conversation on sexuality education.
Purchase additional monitoring software or apps for your devices. The FBI recommends keeping your firewall turned on, installing or updating your antivirus software, keeping your operating system up to date, never opening email attachments from someone you don’t know and turning off your computer when you’re not using it.
Use a password manager. Over 155 million Americans were affected by data breaches in 2020. To ensure that all your accounts aren’t compromised in a data breach, it helps to use complex and unique passwords for each account. Rather than remembering each of them, password managers let you store those logins in an encrypted database. That way, you only have to remember one password.
Additional internet safety resources
If you want to look into some more tools for internet safety, there are a number of helpful resources to check out. Child-friendly browsers like Safe Search for Kids let you set parental controls on internet searches, and Yahoo and Google both have extensive options for curating a family-friendly experience online. We also found these to be valuable resources on internet safety as we researched this article:
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