Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…
Asperger’s Syndrome – Developing Social Skills on the Internet
This is the latest in a series of “Friendship Academy” newsletters written by a young adult with Asperger’s.
I always had a hard time making friends as a child. Undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome will do that to you. I didn’t have a clue what to do with the kids in my school or how to start friendships with them. But online, somehow, it was different. My family got the Internet probably when I was 11 or 12. I still remember being introduced to it, the first time I ever used it. “You can type in anything you want in this box,” said my brother, “and you’ll find stuff about it.”
Well, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but I jumped right in. I typed “cats.” I am fairly certain this is the first Internet search I ever did. I know this because I was absolutely obsessed with cats at the time, and thought about little else.
Immediately, links to sites about cats popped up, full of cute pictures. (Being excessively preoccupied with one topic to the exclusion of all others is a common trait of those with Asperger’s syndrome.) One of them said “Email me” so I decided to email him, using my dad’s email address, something to the effect of “I like your site. I love cats too!”
A Friendship Blossoms
The man I was emailing was a middle aged man named Len, who I think was from Finland or some nearby country. Despite our obvious differences, we emailed back and forth for another 2+ years.
We started out talking about cats, of course, but that branched out into other topics. I remember telling him about what I did in summer camp. It turned out he got married at the same university in California where my uncle had gone to school. We talked about life in our individual countries, and he shocked me one day by telling me he didn’t know what fudge was.
My Interests Diversify
When AOL came around, I used the Member Directory to find more people who liked cats. The majority of the conversations were superficial, of course, but there were a few that lasted. One person I still know today, 15 years later! Only the medium has changed, from AOL to Facebook. This person is my age and lived in Georgia. After cats, I got into oldies music and found more friends who shared that interest. Country music, natural health, autism and other topics would follow over the years. I met people on message boards and email groups about common subjects.
The take-away here is that these friendships started from one of my interests/obsessions at the time, and then branched out to talking about other areas of my life and theirs. The amount of social skills I learned from these encounters and the sense of belonging I felt from being a part of these groups were pivotal to me.
Instead of being completely isolated from my peers and adrift in a sea of loneliness as no doubt my Asperger’s syndrome peers largely did in generations before, I was playing Prodigy trivia games on Saturday nights with people online who knew me — that is to say, they were glad to “see” me, and laughed at my jokes.
When other teenagers were out on dates or cruising the mall, I was in a Saturday night oldies music chat with three other friends scattered across the country who I met with every week. We were listening to a nationally syndicated oldies music program on our radios and discussing the music as it played.
The Therapy Behind It — Like the Autism Therapy Floortime
What I find particularly interesting here, thinking about this topic about 15 years after my first ever online encounter, is that what I did mimics the tenets of the autism therapy floortime so perfectly. Floortime is a way to get kids with autism and adults more involved in the social world around them. You start by meeting them where they are — for a child, getting on the floor and lining up cars with them or reading comic books with an older child — and use that interest to gradually branch out to other topics or skills.
Someone with Asperger’s syndrome can find friends online
There was no way in hell I could have gone up to someone in my school, randomly started talking about cats with them, and expected them to become a friend. That behavior would have been considered extremely weird and the other person might have run away screaming. But online? On a special interest site? That behavior is expected.
The Internet was a perfect forum for me to learn how to make friends. I learned to care about other people’s feelings and to be interested in other people’s lives from these online friendships. I learned what it was like to have other people care about me. I learned a little bit about the give and take of a conversation. And the best part of was that I didn’t have to worry about nonverbal communication, which people with Asperger’s usually do quite badly with. No reading body language or having to worry about making eye contact. All we had to communicate with were words — the purest form of communication of all.
Did it prepare me for friendships in exactly the same way that traditional friendships would have? No. But it was an awfully good start. The Internet continues to be extremely valuable to me as a source of social support for different issues that come up in my life. Only now it is supplemented by genuine, off the computer friendships as well. Both, however, are quite valuable to me.
A Word on Safety Issues for those with Asperger’s syndrome
It goes without saying that the above advice only applies if you and your child use proper safety measures on the Internet. When your child with autism first starts using the Internet, insist on either using a joint email address with them or on having access to their email — just for long enough so you can monitor if they are using the Internet safely and responsibly.
Make sure you make it clear to them that they are not allowed to give out their full name, address, phone number or any other private information (at least until they become a certain age where you feel they can handle this responsibly). Children with autism may be very naïve to others bad intentions and trust those whom they should not trust.
Impress upon them that while the Internet can be a wonderful place, there will always be people wanting to take advantage of them and pretending to be who they’re not — so they need to practice safe Internet use, and leave a conversation when they feel uncomfortable. This advice goes for adults too — make sure you know someone for a while before sharing any personal information!
Used in the right well, the Internet can be a wonderful tool for finding social connections. And for additional information, tips and suggestions on improving social skills for adults, see my book, Thriving in Adulthood with Asperger’s Syndrome. Teen can benefit from my book, The Asperger’s Syndrome Guide to Teens and Young Adults which has entire chapters on developing dating and other skills so important to teenagers.