It is absolutely incredible to me how far texting and social media have come in my short lifetime. I’m in an interesting position because I do remember a time before it, and how hard it was to cope. That is why I want to share how it impacted me as an autistic person as it grew throughout the years. Social media was extremely helpful for me, and has forever changed the way I am able to interact with people.
Social interactions were always hard. Hard because I am so overloaded with sensory that my processing is delayed for everything else. I need a few extra seconds to process an interaction. Maybe even minutes. This is especially true if I don’t know what is happening non-verbally. Or sometimes my processing just has a moment where it doesn’t work at all. For example, there are still days when someone says something to me and although I hear the words being said my brain attaches no meaning. It cannot comprehend what was just said. And I’m then left wondering, “was that even my language? What did they say?” I often ask people to repeat something, especially in crowded places because of my delayed processing. But sometimes I need people to repeat even when it is just them and myself in a quiet space. As you can imagine, as a child this is extremely stressful when you are so badly trying to find your place in the social order and make friends.
The first game changer for me was the creation of AOL instant messaging (AIM). For any younger readers, this was the precursor to texting. Think of it like Facebook messaging, simply a live chat box where you could converse with someone on your friends list. It changed everything for me. For the first time, I could have a conversation without the stress and anxiety of wondering if I would be able to process in time or whether I would process at all. Because in instant messaging, lag time is allowed. No one can see you are thinking of an answer. I could even look up answers and the proper social responses in certain conversations through either Google or by asking my family.
Here is a good example of how this feels to me. Think about when you are texting someone you like romantically. Many people text now because it allows them to show their friends and ask for opinions, analyze what the person is saying, and how to best respond or determine if the other person is also interested based on how they answer. This is exactly what I was doing, only with all social situations. My social experience is the same anxiety you may feel in the flirting over text; only for me it is every encounter. This is because I never know. And my processing doesn’t help. For the first time I had a barrier. A way to piece together what was happening in a low pressure situation.
Then came YouTube. I originally found YouTube when it first launched, trying to find episodes of one of my favorite TV shows. Back then, you could find them on there. So I created my account in 2005 and never looked back. But YouTube proved to be so much more. I was able to watch videos of individuals who filmed advice for different scenarios, and more importantly, mimic and mirror based on what I saw in these social videos. I could learn how people flirted, how they acted when they were angry…all kinds of things. It gave me another way to document nonverbal cues that I could then recall in my own social situations. And people were creating on YouTube, which allowed me to find an expressive outlet. They were creating and interacting without ever having the pressure of an in person encounter.
This was soon followed by the rise of social media. Social media has been helpful to me because I can practice recognizing faces in Facebook pictures, facial expressions, and get an idea of the social context of a group of people before meeting up with them. And once again, I was able to talk to people in a low-pressure situation. Texting of course also provided this. My social interactions were expanding and what I was capable of was expanding. I could have meaningful social interactions with my friends that didn’t leave me completely drained or left out. Facebook and apps such as MeetUp have provided me a way to see what kinds of social events are happening around me. This has been very helpful in making friends in my adult years because I can find things that interest me that are near to where I live. This gives me a way to meet people with similar interests and prep myself for the social experience.
I started out by once a week finding an event of something I would enjoy and like to attend, even if it was just with one friend. This helped me to slowly put myself out there. I would also recommend using this space to include one or two friends in planning activities or outings that you find calming like hiking or going for coffee. This way, you are already doing something that you would normally do to decompress but with someone. Over time, you will associate that person and the social interaction with decompressing and feeling uplifted. I also use Facebook to see ratings of places, and more importantly, times places are most busy. I can then meet a friend at a restaurant I want to try for example at an off hour. This helps me to not feel as stressed and overwhelmed because I know there will be fewer people there at that time. I can then focus on my social interaction and having fun.
Social media has also allowed us to connect. Although I have not used Twitter and other social media until more recently, I have seen first hand how it has allowed people on the autism spectrum to connect and find community. We are not surrounded by others on the spectrum most of the time, and I have been astounded how people from all over the world can come together in one platform to offer advice, support, and companionship, all the while in the safety of anonymity and low pressure social interaction. It is an incredible evolution that allows communication between a group of people that have a hard time communicating by nature because of how difficult and intimidating social situations can be for us.
I recently found on Twitter My Disability Matters (mydisabilitymatters.com). The mission of this website is truly amazing to me. It has taken all the aspects of social media and messaging that allowed me to become less isolated to create a community for anyone that has a disability. I imagine that the disability community has had a similar experience to those of us who are autistic. One of becoming less isolated and having more accessibility with the rise of the Internet and social media. A place where we can all come together to share information and resources, and build friendships. Importantly, in a safe and judgment free environment. I would recommend a website such as this to anyone looking to connect with like minded people or for further resources within the disability community. It shares news and allows you to have a profile. I think it is a great way to connect.
Additionally, with the rise of social media has come a darker side to the Internet. One that is ready to deceive and take advantage of people who are looking for community. This is why I am glad to see websites like My Disability Matters and others being created. It protects those of us in a vulnerable position from people who want to exploit that. I think these kinds of platforms are much needed so that we can engage without being fearful. I would recommend any of my readers looking for a safe community and connection on issues surrounding autism to try resources that have a good monitoring system.
For me, the Internet and texting was a complete life-changing event. I suspect that it was for everyone since even those who are not on the autism spectrum often prefer it. I think to some degree everyone craves that delay in social interaction to formulate answers and know what is happening. For people on the autism spectrum today, there is an advantage since so many people prefer texting it is much more unlikely to be faced with the anxiety of a phone call or in person social interaction if you are not ready or do not prefer that method of communication. The rise of texting and social media in many ways has turned the tables in our favor. Because I remember how isolating life was before it existed. It has created accessibility and inclusion.
Note: Thank you to Dale Reardon with My Disability Matters for collaborating with me. I think this is a great resource and mission as the Internet and Social Media has been such a positive change for many of us and influential socially. For more information check out their website
You can also find them on Twitter! @audisability