Conversation between two 8-year old boys, one diagnosed with High Functioning Autism:
“Can I tell you something?”
“When you have a golden sword you can’t tackle the Eye of Cthulhu very well. Gold is a soft metal that doesn’t withstand…”
“What are you talking about?”
“One time Pbat went to battle with only a golden sword and he was defeated in like 5 minutes…”
“Is this a video game?”
“What? No! Terraria! On a computer, you can’t play on a console. Mario has been in video games for almost 30 years, did you know he is a plumber?”
“I am going outside.”
Most of us will try to avoid confusing, one-sided conversations, but why is it so difficult for some people to gauge interest, take turns or read facial cues? Individuals with autism face immense challenges in basic interactions by failing to take another person’s perspective and not knowing the unspoken social rules we use each day. These aren’t small problems that just leave you off of party guest lists—these are major challenges that impede an individual’s ability to bond, receive an education and live independently.
Individuals with autism must find ways to actively learn and continuously hone their social skills in order to establish any form of independence. The current social media boom creates an interesting opportunity to safely join the massive human conversation taking place on-line. The digital filter of a computer screen can put the content of a conversation, the expertise of an individual and the joy of a shared experience in the forefront, while the struggles, confusion and unclear expectations are left in the shadows.
We hear about autism disorders now more than ever; perhaps you have pictures of “Rain Man” geniuses and non-verbal children flashing through your head. From 2002 to 2009 the CDC reported a 57% increase in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) rates; today an average of 1 in 110 American children has an ASD diagnosis. The US number may even be low – a May, 2011 South Korean study found an ASD rate of 1 in 38 children by tackling the questioning of symptoms broadly instead of only seeking out documented cases.
Those of us without this disability don’t give much thought to how social rules such as, “smile back at someone who smiles at you”, “change the subject if someone’s body language shows disinterest” or even “ask for help when you are struggling,” guide practically all of our interactions. No one specifically teaches us these rules because so much of social interaction is literally hard-wired. For example, brain cells called mirror neurons support human empathy by reflecting what we see in other people including smiles, frowns and other non-verbal cues. A 2005 UC San Diego study found that these neurons are noticeably diminished in the autistic brain, reducing empathetic responses and connections.
If your brain didn’t provide you these valuable signals, you would be living in constant fear and anxiety, not knowing where trouble lay ahead. It must be akin to how a city-dweller would feel if dropped into the heart of the Amazon with no preparation, tools or support.
A universe of comfortable social interaction
Social media gives everyone the same set of social rules to follow—140 character updates, comment boxes, click to “like” another person’s perspective. These tools work regardless of how well you gauge the subtle social rules that can be found at our dinner tables, grocery stores and happy hours. The most compelling aspect of social media for learning social skills is that it isn’t a specialized program, this is simply where people naturally gather and communicate. But thanks to the embedded structure of online tools and vast opportunities to find people with similar interests, it creates a safe environment for every level of social ability. For example, consider the following exchange between YouTube users about the video game Terraria. Effective social interaction? Yes. Involving anyone with autism? Unknown and doesn’t matter.
“Hey—I need help finding something to defeat the Eye of Cthulhu!!!”
“Dude, you don’t have a chance without a Lava suit and a meteor sword. Watch SlyFox’s YouTube video, Terraria episode 11 to try it out. He is so boss.”
“Thanks—that was SO boss! I am a PBat homie and never watch Sly cause I thought that would be selling out my boy, but Sly crushed it in that battle.”
“Sly & PBat are over that rivalry—didn’t you hear about the commentators’’ battle this Friday? O blogradio at 8 p.m. Listen & hit the Twitter feed—over 30,000 others joining.”
Once the virtual ice is broken for a social relationship much of the hard work is done, you’ve found the people who may think, act or enjoy things similarly to you. This opens the door for real world activities that may still be challenging, but are much more likely to focus on people for who they are and not how their brains work.
Another reason to like social media
Growth in autism is a fact, and the children diagnosed today will be adults tomorrow that both need and want to contribute to the world. Social media is but one of many areas of support for these special citizens. Fortunately, it is one where an unintended benefit of design brings people of all social skills together. Even in our ubiquitous technological world where we average seven electronic devices per person, we still need to smile, talk and live with real people. So when you are at the grocery store, your favorite restaurant or at work and experience an awkward conversation or see someone calming themselves in an unusual manner, please realize this may be the same person you chatted with on-line last night or the user that provided the best answer to your question on Quora. Go ahead and give them a smile even if you don’t get one back today. Tomorrow the smile may just come.