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Supporting Adolescents with Autism Using Technology to Interact with Peers

Friendships are a vital part of adolescence. Friends provide advice and help with navigating through tough topics. As children grow into adolescence, they begin to rely more on the opinions of friends than parents to make sense of the world. Thus, adolescent friendships are an important resource outside of family (Woolfolk & Perry, 2015). Friendships usually begin by regularly conversing, sharing interests, and spending time in social settings (Woolfolk & Perry, 2015). Some friendships have the potential to last a lifetime, impacting career opportunities, dating relationships, community involvement, and mental and physical wellbeing (Lunstad, 2018). Unfortunately, while forming friendships can be fulfilling, adolescents with autism may have an extremely challenging time developing supportive relationships due to the core characteristics associated with the disorder (Anthony & Bobzien, 2021).

teenage girl using mobile smart phone at home while laying on the bed

Social-communication challenges manifest as the imperfect ability to initiate interactions, respond appropriately in conversations, or interpret implicit social cues (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013), and may hinder the development of friendships, leading to isolation, loneliness, and depression among adolescents with autism (Kelly et al., 2018). Hedges et al. (2014) asserted that depression is more common in adolescents with autism than their neurotypical peers. Additionally, “rates of major depressive disorder have been reported as high as 37% in adolescents with autism compared to approximately 5% of adolescents in the general population” (Hedges et al., 2014 pg. 1). Research has indicated that adolescents with autism want to build friendships with peers; however, they struggle to communicate effectively when social interactions become more complex and demanding (Kelly et al., 2018). Because effective social-communication skills are essential to initiating and maintaining friendships, obtaining employment, and independent living, there is a need for targeted interventions that address these critical skills (Ke et al., 2018). Technology has shown to be a viable intervention choice when used to remediate the social communication skills of adolescents with autism.

Technology Use and Adolescents with Autism

For more than 25 years, researchers have used technology to improve the social-communication skills of individuals with autism (Odom et al., 2015). Advancements in technology like smartphones, iPads, and virtual reality systems give adolescents with autism an opportunity to engage in age-appropriate activities while practicing prosocial behaviors (Anthony & Bobzien, 2021). Some clinicians have even turned to social media to assist adolescents with autism in making friends and expanding their peer networks. Social media websites (eg., Meta, formerly known as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tiktok, and Youtube) are extremely appealing to adolescents with autism as cognitive loads, behavioral expectations, and communicative demands are lessened when interacting with peers online (Van Schalkwyk et al., 2018). Research has also indicated that social media use increases friendship options for adolescents with autism. In fact, Van Schalkwyk et al. (2018) found that social media usage was associated with improved friendship quality in adolescents with autism, but not their neurotypical peers.

Although social media is a popular way to interact among adolescents with autism, recent news reports indicate that prolonged use has impacted self-esteem and led to cyberbullying. Prolonged internet use among adolescents with autism also may limit face-to-face interactions (Clinard, 2016; Van Schalkwyk et al., 2018), which are integral to understanding non-verbal cues and emotional states. Moreover, adolescents with autism are especially in danger of becoming compulsive internet users due to characterized restrictive and repetitive interests; therefore, they may have a hard time moving between real life and imaginary worlds (Clinard, 2016).

While some adolescents with autism may benefit from social media use, Clinard (2016) has recommended several ways parents and caregivers can restrict obsessive technology use if it becomes an issue:

  • Set clear limits on internet use and use a timer for the teen to indicate when use is finished. Software timers can also be used to limit access to certain websites to specific hours
  • Discuss what bullying looks like so the teen knows how to identify it (for example, name-calling and threatening images)
  • Discuss the dangers and consequences of visiting inappropriate websites
  • Teach the teen about images or content that could be considered criminal and encourage the teen to tell an adult if encouraged to access this content

A full list of recommendations can be found here: Internet Safety for Adolescents with Autism (unc.edu).

Summary

There are several research articles suggesting that adolescents with autism have a desire to form friendships like their neurotypical peers. However, core characteristics of autism may affect the development of meaningful relationships. Technology device usage and social media are age-appropriate, socially acceptable ways to interact with same-age peers, but these platforms should be monitored and used in moderation.

Dr. Nicole Anthony is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Fayetteville State University. She can be reached at dranthony@educatordiversity.org or (757) 556-6848.

References

Anthony, N., Bobzien, J. (2021). Using two formats of a social story to increase the verbal initiations and on-topic responses of two adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05298-w

American Psychiatric Publishing American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.

Clinard, A. (2016, February). Internet safety for teens with ASD (Autism at-a-Glance Brief). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, CSESA Development Team.

Hedges, S., White, T., & Smith, L. (2014, May). Depression in adolescents with ASD (Autism at-a-Glance Brief). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, CSESA Development Team

Holt-Lunstad J. (2018). Why Social Relationships Are Important for Physical Health: A Systems Approach to Understanding and Modifying Risk and Protection. Annual review of psychology, 69, 437–458. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011902

Ke, F., Whalon, K., & Yun, J. (2018). Social skill interventions for youth and adults with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 88(1), 3–42. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654317740334

Kelly, R., O’Malley, M. P., & Antonijevic, S. (2018). “Just trying to talk to people…It’s the hardest”: Perspectives of adolescents with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder on their social communication skills. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 34, 319–334. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265659018806754

Odom, S. L., Thompson, J. L., Hedges, S., Boyd, B. A., Dykstra, J. R., Duda, M. A., Szidon, K. L., Smith, L. E., & Bord, A. (2015). Technology-aided interventions and instruction for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 3805–3819. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2320-6

Van Schalkwyk, G.I., Marin, C.E., Ortiz, M. et al. (2017). Social Media Use, Friendship Quality, and the Moderating Role of Anxiety in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 47, 2805–2813. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3201-6

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