Autism and the Internet: Navigating a Treacherous, Anonymous Web

It’s no secret that living on the Autism Spectrum brings about many seemingly insurmountable obstacles when it comes to living in a social world. Difficulties in both reading and expressing emotions, combined with a tendency to restrict oneself to their own personal interests make it difficult for many on the spectrum to relate with others (DSM-V). However, the rise of the Internet as the predominant tool of communication in the world, people across the world have been able to connect in ways that seemed unfathomable just over two decades ago. The power to seamlessly manage social ties, to stay updated to friends’ statuses in real time regardless of distance, and to forge relationships on the web have revolutionized the way we see and deal with our social lives. Accordingly, the unprecedented convenience and ease to communicate through the internet has greatly improved the ability for those with Autism not only to keep in touch with loved ones, but also form social ties with others. The added control brought about by technologies such as instant messaging provides a great alternative to face-to-face interactions, allowing individuals with Autism to practice thinking through their responses rather than being forced to reciprocate spontaneously (Gillepsie-Lynch et al., 2014).

While it is clear that the internet is and will remain an integral part of the process of social exploration for people with Autism, unfortunately there are also many instances of cruelty and bigotry that are prevalent throughout the web. The rise of web-based social media has also brought with it a rise of anonymous social interactions. Such veils of anonymity, while vital in protecting the privacy of users in the public realm, have also created the notion of a carte blanche attitude of user-to-user interaction. In other words, people who would otherwise be expected to display a certain degree of decorum while interacting with people in public will feel shielded from the same social pressures, bringing out behaviors that may otherwise have been subject to scrutiny (Christopherson, 2007).

Look at any typical comment page with anonymous or highly ambiguous aliases on popular media sites like Youtube, or even through a Facebook news feed where accounts are often literally complete virtual manifestations of people. More often than not, you will see people arguing over the topic of a given day, with such arguments often resorting to inane trolling and name calling. However beneath the pettiness of such interactions belies something quite troubling. As these interactions become more common, though still largely looked down by most internet users, they also become seen as unfortunate but typical web experiences (Bryce & Fraser, 2013). Calling people “retards” or “autistic” as a way of insulting their character not only further contribute to the many layers of hate and bigotry in the darkest corners of the web, but also further adds to the stigma afflicting scores of people living with Autism across the world—reinforcing the implication that being diagnosed with such a condition somehow makes an individual less human than another.

 So how do we deal with this? Obviously, changing the ingrained culture of the internet is a tall order. And certainly, bigotry will always be an insufferable but constant factor in the struggle to destigmatize Autism and many other mental disorders. However at the end of the day, the actions we have the most control over are the ones we bring forth. Whether it’s consciously avoiding using derogatory terms or voicing disapproval when others do use them, every effort— no matter how small— can make all the difference in the world.


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