It’s undeniable that we live in the Internet age. It’s dramatically changed our lives. The internet connects and divides us, providing us with information and misinformation. It’s a curse and a blessing. And it has revolutionized the Autism rights movement. So how has the internet helped Autistics? How has it hindered us? In my opinion, it has done and continues to do both.
Socially, the internet has been a great asset for Autistics. Many Autistics gravitate to special interests and the internet provides them with targeted outlets. These are fields, fandoms, topics, etc that interest them. For me, I find myself gravitating towards maps, flags, world politics, history, and anything Jewish. I spend a lot of my free time watching videos about history and occasionally playing games such as Europa Universalis IV, an online map strategy game set in the 1400s. For some Autistics, the internet allows them to go even further. Online wikis, discord servers, and chat rooms allow Autistics to discuss with a similarly enthused person the topics that fascinate them. It may not be possible to find a fan of your favorite TV show at your school but with the internet, you are certain to find someone to whom you can connect. For Autistics, these online spaces are much less stressful than face-to-face encounters. You don’t have to worry about social cues or reading the room as much.
There are also drawbacks. First, people can be glued to their phones. And while phones are useful for keeping in touch, they limit face-to-face communication. Second, social media and messaging platforms create additional social boundaries for Autistics. Snapchat is almost a necessity for high school students to socialize. I tried it out and I just could not get it. So while the internet has opened doors for Autistics to socialize through Discord and chat rooms, some Autistics find that social media is hard to navigate, making it rarer to start and maintain friendships in person.
Finally, there are the terrible mental health tolls of social media. I am glad that I was wary of social media at a young age, not downloading any apps until I was 13. I have noticed that the mental health issues that are a significant focus of conversation these days may be more problematic for Autistics. Social media pushes the expectation to fit in - to look like everyone else, to act like everyone else, to have similar interests and experiences. Autistics struggle to live up to these standards. Kids will post all the time about concerts, parties, and large friend groups – it sends me the message that I need to mask up (see my blog Unmasking Autism) and fit into these roles, rather than be myself.
I take a strong stand against these toxic elements of social media. First, I rarely use it. Secondly, when I use it, I am very specific about what I am posting. I use social media to promote USY events and my website/advocacy work. I will post book reviews on my private, personal account. Is that what everyone else is doing? No! But I have fought too hard against masking to make myself conform online as well. When I use social media, I want to use it in a responsible way and in a way that I want – not what others expect. I recommend you also think meaningfully about your social media usage. Use it in a way that is authentic to you, not what others expect of you.
The internet is not just a social outlet for Autistics; it revolutionizes the information and disinformation shared about Autism. Posts from #actuallyautistic creators are educating people about what Autism is; podcasts are including Autistic voices to discuss their journeys and experiences; and websites are allowing Autistic groups to market and spread their message more easily. Even when I speak to in-person groups, I have noticed how the internet is making a difference. I use Google Slides to create my presentation, share my email to respond to any questions that audience members may have after the fact and I also use Kahoot! (an online quiz game) to go over content with middle school students. And the internet provides greater opportunities to spread education and awareness. Just recently, I had the pleasure of joining the team at JDIN (Jewish Disability Inclusion News). It’s a platform for Jewish disability advocates to share videos, blogs, resources, and news with a greater community. I think it’s going to transform the Jewish disability space – I hope you check it out (Link to JDIN).
But with information comes disinformation. For every great website like JDIN or ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network; an organization run by and for Autistic people which provides resources and advocates for the rights of Autistic people) comes a site promoting a bleach “cure” for Autism or incorrectly claiming that vaccines cause Autism. Not only does this misinformation hurt the Autistic community, the anti-vax movement is putting others at risk – including the elderly, immunocompromised, and those with other disabilities. These types of social media campaigns make the fight to educate neurotypicals about Autism even more difficult. This is especially bad because social media is built to spread shocking and emotionally triggering messages. Unfortunately, people are more likely to watch a video entitled “The Plot to Spread Autism” over “How to Support an Autistic Friend”.
And the internet also carries more malicious threats: cyberbullying, hateful memes, and downright bigotry. It varies from overt to covert. And I have been exposed to a lot of it. First, there is the outright ableism. As with any minority group, outright hate against Autistics or neurodiverse people is abundant. Calls for mass institutionalization. Claims that we are stupid or mentally diseased. An idea is promulgated that we are incapable of taking our agency. This seeps into the real world. As anti-Trans bills and policies are pushed by those on the far-right, some are using ableist tropes to target the many Autistics who deal with gender dysphoria (I highly recommend reading this article to learn more about Autism and Gender Dysphoria).
Then there are the more covert. Memes, using “Autistic” as a pejorative to describe someone as stupid or annoying, is cyberbullying that makes fun of Autistic people. This leads to two things. First, neurotypicals who may be uneducated about Autism may develop harmful assumptions about what Autism is. They will begin to believe that it is a disease or something to be cured instead of what it is: a difference in processing and development. These neurotypicals may feel more free to openly bully or patronize Autistic people online or in person. They may think that these hateful opinions are valid or that their ableism isn’t a big deal. These people inadvertently or knowingly spread ableism to more people. At a time when the internet has quite literally built the Autism rights movement, it also serves as its biggest enemy. And that is what happens as the bullying, the memes, and the naysayers get into Autistics’ heads. Social media has already been linked to mental health concerns. The negativity leads to dangerous perceptions and thoughts about a lack of self-worth because one is Autistic. ‘Am I worthwhile?’ ‘Do I need to be cured?’
All in all, I do think the internet is a net positive for the Autism community. We’ve seen the Autism Rights Movement push back against an archaic narrative: #ActuallyAutistic trends on Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day, online spaces allow Autistics to open up about their experiences, etc. But we must also be wary of the consequences of this tool. Like Pandora’s box, the internet has opened a world of possibilities. I think most of them are good but we have consigned ourselves to a perpetual battle that can never be won. With the internet, there will always be haters. Simply put, anti-Autism bias is here to stay. But we can win on the individual scale. We can teach one another about how to include meaning, how to treat others with empathy, and how to love others as they deserve to be treated.