The Growing Autism Challenge

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, about 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The Autism Society states that it is the fastest-growing developmental disability, and only 56 percent of students with autism finish high school. It also reports that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about 14 percent, compared with 9 percent for people without a disability.

If we hope to confront this growing challenge, we need to help children with ASD while they are still young. In this regard, the clinicians who deliver speech therapy via telepractice play a critical role in helping these children learn to communicate in general and deal with the new reality of social media in particular.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Media

A Complex Challenge

The question of how speech therapy can help children with ASD navigate the world of social media is of increasing interest in both the academic and lay communities. At the root of this question is, very simply, will social media help or hinder these children in developing the vital social skills they need to fully participate in the 21st century?

The question grows in complexity when we stop to consider that online communication in today’s world is often decontextualized, abstract, and follows complex pragmatic rules. What’s more, children on the spectrum are already struggling with nebulous social rules and nuances. In the autism field, this is often called the “hidden curriculum.” The problem is that technology, instead of demystifying communication, can make it even more unclear.

Take, for example, when a child yells out in the middle of class for the other kids to activate Airdrop on their smartphones. When they do, everyone with Airdrop instantly receives a fellow student’s picture together with a hateful comment. The child with autism doesn’t know how to react. What’s more, the social challenges facing the child with ASD make him/her especially vulnerable to victimization by this cruel behavior.

An Alternative Way to Build Confidence

On the other hand, there is a growing number of ASD children who are harnessing the power of social media to bolster their self-confidence by sharing videos or other content, unencumbered by their communication deficits. Some are even telling their stories to others while remaining faceless in the process. These developments have given scientists a potentially transformative avenue to explore in the ever-expanding field of autism research.

The Mysterious Draw of Autistic Children to Social Media

It has been known for years that autistic children are drawn to technology. But what is it about social media that they find so attractive? “That part is very much a mystery. But it’s certainly attracting the attention of researchers,” said Peter Szatmari, a leading autism researcher.

One theory, Dr. Szatmari said, is that the human face doesn’t have the same drawing power for an autistic child and that something about technology triggers the motivation that’s lacking in face-to-face contact. “This can have a big impact in helping people with ASD navigate the world and be able to do things that we never thought possible before,” he said.

Capitalizing on the Benefits of Social Media

Irrespective of the “answer” as to whether or not social media is beneficial to children on the spectrum, social media is here to stay. What’s more, it is already a part of these children’s lives and will continue to grow. Other than installing parental controls on their children’s devices, what can be done to accentuate the benefits?

  1. Choose the right time of day. Every one of us has more and less social times during the day. Choose a time when your child isn’t too tired or anxious to be using social media. Also, make sure the time is relaxed, and he/she doesn’t feel rushed. You want the interaction with social media to be a relaxing experience.

  2. Delete any hurtful comments you find by monitoring the account. Do the best you can, but realize that it is impossible to protect your child from every mean commentator out there. So, when you miss one, turn it into a teaching moment. Part of your child’s social education is learning how to cope when people are ignorant or mean.

  3. Within reason, monitor and filter friends and contacts. Keep in mind that your child is still learning social behavior. So, it would help if you controlled who he/she will interact with online. At the same time, it is essential to introduce choice into the process. This will build confidence in his/her choice-making ability.

How Speech Therapy Can Help

  1. Safety rules for digital use. Teach students what is and what isn’t appropriate online content. For example, when is permission necessary to post videos of others, and what are the consequences of posting inappropriate material?

  2. Working with email. Teach your students some of the basics of email protocol, such as copying messages from others and when it is appropriate to forward messages. And teach them how to compose an email correctly.

  3. The social etiquette of using a smartphone. Teach your students when to turn off ringers and alerts, not to scroll through screens during class time, and to only answer or place calls after hours or at recess.

  4. Use a digital medium to teach how to express feelings. Teach students that their images, words, and expressions can impact others emotionally. Alternatively, teach the students how to express themselves by creating YouTube videos or Instagram stories. There is plenty of guidance online on how to go about this.

A Final Word

Remember, the task of a clinician who delivers speech therapy via telepractice is to teach kids how to communicate in the real world, and much of that social interaction today is happening online.

Children with ASD need to learn how to swim in this new sea of communication if they hope to be successful in school, college, and ultimately in employment. And the SLP is critical in the process. The difference she could make is awesome to fathom.