Social media. Apps. Social skills. Autism. You hear these words on the lips of many ASHA Convention attendees as you walk the halls or sit in sessions. You also hear these words in combination—for example, how can we help young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) navigate the Wild West of social media? How can they further their social progress online, and not hinder it?
It’s no easy proposition, said Megan Miskowski, a speech-language pathologist in the Baltimore City Public Schools, in a session on teens and technology.
“Communication in the 21st Century—online communication—is decontextualized, abstract, and follows complex pragmatic rules,” said Miskowski. “Speech-language therapy has to address this with teens with ASD because if we don’t, our kids will struggle to transition to high school, college, and employment.”
Teens on the spectrum already tend to struggle with nebulous social rules and nuances—what’s often called the “hidden curriculum”—and this curriculum is even more unclear with technology, noted Miskowski.
Miskowski gave an example of treacherous tech terrain for these teens: A student yells out during class for other students to turn on Airdrop on their smartphones. Instantly, those with Airdrop activated receive a fellow student’s picture emblazoned with a hateful comment. Given their social challenges, students with ASD are especially prone to participating in, or being victimized by, this sort of inappropriate tech behavior, Miskowski said.
So how can SLPs help? By developing treatment goals targeted to boost these teens’ tech savviness, said Miskowski. She suggested a number of goals to accomplish this, including (in abbreviated form) having students:
- Identify digital safety rules. Teach students about what constitutes appropriate content online, such as when others’ permission is necessary to post videos of them and how sharing pornographic images of underage teens is illegal. “Often kids think we won’t figure out who sent it, but oh yes, we can,” said Miskowski. “And it’s producing and distributing child porn.” For guidance, she suggests visiting the site commonsensemedia.org and its suggestions on TikTok safety.
- Compose an email for a specific purpose with an appropriate tone. Teach students email protocol regarding copying others and forwarding messages. Emphasize that everyone on the chain will see the email, and that it’s permanent (which can be good or bad, depending). Students can practice email etiquette by, for example, emailing teachers about assignments or emailing the author of a book they’re reading.
- Provide a pragmatically appropriate response for tech use in an in-person social scenario. Teach students smartphone social etiquette, such as turning off ringers and dings, not scrolling screens during class or meetings, and taking personal calls only on break or after hours.
- Use a digital medium to express how someone feels in a given situation. Teach students that the way they use words and images online affects others emotionally. SLPs can work on this with students by having them create Instagram stories or “text stories”—videos of text exchanges that tell a story about those sending the texts. Miskowski shared an example of a humorous text story between Romeo and Juliet that’s popular with her students. She advised searching YouTube for guidance on creating these stories.
Miskowski also emphasized the importance of teaching students to think critically about online content. And she advised coaching them on how to engage audiences in jokes and videos using planning, timing, enthusiasm, brevity, and eye contact. “The idea is for the student not to tell a long, boring story,” said Miskoswki. “Instead, they highlight all the good stuff.”
Finally, Miskowski warned that young people with ASD may be vulnerable to recruitment by online hate groups. She suggested encouraging students to join alternate positive communities on, for example, Reddit or TikToK, based on their interests.
“As SLPs, our job is to teach kids how to communicate in the real world,” said Miskowski. “And let’s face it, much of that communication is happening online.”
Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.