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What Facebook Can Tell us About Teaching Social Communication to Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders

March 1st, 2012 · No Comments · Facebook, Special Needs, Teens

Listening to Paul Adams from Facebook talk on what people share really resonated with me and made me wonder if Facebook is helping or hurting the autistic spectrum population make in-person friends. Part of my job both at camp and in my private practice involves teaching children, teens, and young adults how to talk to each other and how to develop social relationships in person. I teach perspective taking, small talk, reciprocity in conversation, and how to find things in common. Just this week my middle school group talked about how people make friends and the difference between a friend, peer, and acquaintance. I had to break it to them that making new friends for adults is difficulty too, especially if they change geographic locations. See Rachel Bertsche’s book: MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend and audio interview- link to mp3. In her book, Rachel talks about moving to Chicago and struggling with finding a new local best friend. She did not lack social conventions and still was challenged with the logistics of finding that new best friend. Think about it. Where do your current friends come from: Work, School, Family? What would happen if you moved to a new town far from current friends?

Children and adults with a neurotypical (NT) profile or Neurotypical Syndrome, as the autistic population might call it, may struggle with new social connections when changing jobs or towns but their challenges are not as hard as for those who have a significant problem processing social formation. Children and even adults are not very tolerant of those with different social conventions. At the UC Berkeley Social Skills Camp, we admit a subset of participants who struggle with social communication and we coach them on making friends, having a job, and living in the complex multidimensional social world. Paul Adams, in stating the 4 categories of what people talk about online, said that people talk about feelings not facts.  This is based on Robin Dunbar’s research on the social brain. Those of us that work with the Autistic, Asperger, and Non-Verbal Learning Disabled population know they much prefer to talk about facts and often only the ones that interest them. The online world offers an unlimited supply of others who may share that niche interest in Eleanor Roosevelt, Railroads of the 1920’s, or clocks.

Facebook and online communication tools can be so much easier for people with social challenges since non-verbal communication is basically removed. Where these kids struggle is taking the Facebook relationship to real life. Many might argue that our social life suffers from social networks like Facebook but I have to say mine is richer. I am getting ready to head to SXSW where I will connect with people I often only get to see in person once a year or twice a year. It is easy to pick-up conversations because I am aware with all that has been going on with them since I am connected socially online.  I also see hundreds of children and teens who have a typical social interactional style and have not seen poor social skills when they are with each other in person. This generation is far more harmed by the hovering parent than by text messaging and social networks.

The people at a disadvantage are those who cannot transfer from the one-dimensional communication style permissible on Facebook to the multidimensional in-person communication expected in person, on the job, and at school. People on the autism spectrum when on Facebook can friend, like, comment and share facts, share what they think or feel, and even have reciprocal conversations because it can move at their pace. They can pick and choose who they talk with and don’t need constantly be trying to interpret gestures, postures, voice tone, facial expressions, etc.  On Facebook, when someone make a comment that is confusing or non-literal, you often can look at what other people are saying to see if you can figure it out. In a one-on-one in person conversations, this is difficult. I am heartbroken by the loneliness our spectrum kids face and worried for their future. Some will complain about Facebook and how it is disabling the current generation but I see it as opening a new world for those with Autistic Spectrum disorders who in the past only had a face-to-face community. Facebook and text messaging has giving them a communication tool less riddled with non-verbal attributes that have to be decided upon in the moment.  Make no mistake, they still need support using skills in person. It is so much more difficult to put into practice all the pieces of social communication at once, on the fly, in novel situations. Facebook just makes it a bit easier to exist as a social being on a communication platform that is so wide spread and one dimensional, at your own pace, void of gestures, postures, facial expressions, and voice tone.

On a side note, the American Camp Association has an online course designed my Melanie Berry and myself on Integrating Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders into Recreational Settings.