Exploring How US High School Students with Autism Are Using Social Media

Saturday, May 13, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
S. Hedges1, S. Kucharczyk2 and S. L. Odom3, (1)UNC Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, (2)Curriculum & Instruction, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, (3)University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
Background: While the primary focus of educators is on increasing academic achievement, high school students with autism are also concerned with the social aspects of their school days such as, entering peer groups, making friends, and developing intimate relationships. These non-academic skills may go unaddressed or overlooked by school staff. Within the social environment of high school, difficulties in the areas of communication and social interaction can put students with autism at risk for social isolation and bullying. For some individuals with autism, adolescence brings a growing self-awareness of social difficulties, and negative experiences with peers which may exacerbate social anxiety. Positive peer relationships have been found to facilitate positive social and academic outcomes. Social media, so commonly used by the majority of teens to navigate the social world, has been rarely examined in the lives of teens with autism.

Objectives: To understand what social media high school students with autism are using and what they perceive are its benefits and challenges.

Methods: Paper surveys were completed by 472 high school students with autism receiving special education services across 3 states in the US (California, North Carolina, Wisconsin) regarding their technology use both in and outside of school hours. Ten survey respondents were interviewed by email to probe more deeply into their perspectives of the benefits and challenges of technology.

Results: The majority of survey respondents (92%) reported using technology to communicate and to socialize. The most common tools they used included the phone (81%), text (69%), email (60%), Facebook (47%), and video calls (41%). Roughly 60% of survey respondents are active on social media using a variety of tools in addition to Facebook such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Kik, Vine, Tumblr, Steam, Google+, WhatsApp, and a variety of interactive video games. Eighty-six participants indicated they had had a bad experience using social media (e.g. someone was not nice to them). Participant descriptions of these experiences did not always fit the definition of bullying. None of the students said they had stopped using social media because of these experiences and many explained how they handled it using coping techniques such as defriending or blocking an offender, reporting the incident to an adult, or simply ignoring it.

Findings from qualitative email interviews revealed themes related to ways in which technology and social media can facilitate social opportunities. One common theme was bridging distance by providing contact when unable to physically visit someone due to inability to drive, or when the person is located far away. Other themes included providing a variety of options that easily facilitate social interactions from sharing photos using services such as Snapchat or Instagram, messaging friends while playing games online or watching gamers on YouTube channels and sharing comments with other viewers.

Conclusions: Our study showed that many adolescents with autism are using a wide variety of social media to increase their social interactions. This study has implications on how families and educators consider adolescents’ access to and use of social media to support social skill development.