by Edward Quinn
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty with face-to-face social interactions, and this can have negative consequences for overall well-being. Social networking sites (SNS) offer a platform for interaction that is more comfortable for people with ASD, and has the potential to enhance both online and offline relationships. Mazurek (2013) investigates patterns of social media use among people with ASD and tests for relationships with friendships (quality and quantity) and loneliness.
In a sample of 108 adults diagnosed with ASD, Mazurek (2013) finds that about 80% of the participants use SNS, mostly for purposes of social connection (rather than business, entertainment, etc). Mazurek (2013) finds that those who use SNS are more likely to have close friends, and that ASD adults who use SNS specifically for social connection have closer friendships. Interestingly, the use of SNS was not related to feelings of loneliness. Instead, the quality and quantity of offline friendships was associated with loneliness. Greater numbers and quality of offline friendships were negatively associated with loneliness. Surprisingly, SNS use was not related to offline friendship. This finding runs counter to the notion that SNS have a positive effect on social engagement (in real life).
A number of limitations are discussed by the author, including online recruitment, which may have biased the sample towards greater numbers of SNS users. The data are cross-sectional, and causality cannot be determined. Also, the gender of the sample was evenly split, which is not an accurate reflection of the ASD population. There are roughly four men with ASD for every woman with ASD. Despite the limitations, there is a lot of value in this study. This is a first look at social media use in adults with ASD. From a basic science point of view, it is illuminating to understand the use of SNS and their effects in typically developing people and in people with ASD. Though Mazurek (2013) did not use a control group, she does compare her findings to literature on social media in the broader population, and it appears that the patterns of social media use in the broader population hold in this sample of people with ASD. Another reason this study is important is that it has potential clinical relevance. Given the high levels of engagement with computers by people with ASD, it may be a tempting platform for intervention. This study suggests that any positive effects of SNS on the social lives of people with ASD will work through effects on offline social networks.
ASD interventions would benefit greatly from the type of ethnographic work that Brezis (2012) presents in her chapter. If we subscribe to the idea that a lack of self-understanding is central to ASD, it means that any intervention should be evaluated in terms of its ability to improve self-understanding and self-expression. Social media sites seem like perfect mediums to facilitate such activities, and may be an important testing ground for Brezis' (2012) suggestion that people with ASD might benefit from scaffolding (or outright appropriation of narratives) in self-expression. Social media provides a myriad of tools for self-expression, and it would be interesting to see if these help people with ASD to build an understanding of themselves that enables better social interaction and communication.
Mazurek, M. O. (2013). Social media use among adults with autism spectrum disorders. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1709-1714.
Brezis, R. (2012). Autism as a Case for Neuroanthropology: Delineating the Role of Theory of Mind in Religious Development. In Lende, D. H & Downey, G. Eds. The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. (pp. 291-314). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.