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 VoiceBox ·

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.

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