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Research shows that disabled youth, especially those with autism, are at increased risk for bullying compared to their neurotypical peers. At Ineqe Safeguarding Group, we believe that all young people should have safe and equal access to the digital world.

Social media and the online world can be a difficult place to navigate for all of us. Between the trolls and fake news, the scammers and catfishers, online can be a daunting experience.

The unfortunate reality is that social media can be a particularly difficult environment for some people with autism. For example, difficulty around communication and interactions can leave people with autism open to online bullying.

Young people with autism have the same right to access and participate in digital spaces safely. It’s important to remember there are also many good things about the internet and social media can be really beneficial to someone who has autism.

According to the National Autistic Society:
“Autism is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the worrld. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.”

Online Autism and Bullying: The Facts

  • One study showed that 75% of young people with autism aged between 12 and 20 had experienced bullying.
  • 36% of students with special educational needs had been bullied whilst the rate among their peers was 29%.
  • Those who reported having special educational needs were 12% more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than those who did not.
  • 1% of the UK population have autism.
  • Disabled youth, especially autistic and ADHD youth are at increased risk for bullying victimisation compared to their neurotypical peers.

In this article we highlight 3 ways that you can support children with autism to mitigate the impacts of cyberbullying.

1. Take the time to explain what cyberbullying is

Cyberbullying is any form of bullying behaviour that takes place in online spaces such as social media, gaming platforms or via digital devices.

As some people with autism have different methods of communicating and interacting with others, it may be difficult for them to identify bullying behaviours. Unfortunately, this can mean that any bullying may continue or escalate.

Use these examples of bullying behaviours to support children with autism to understand how to identify cyberbullying:

illustration of girl crying from cyberbullying
  • Being called names or made fun of for their personality or appearance or because they have autism and/or a learning disability.
  • Someone contacting them very frequently in an unwanted manner. 

  • Having their belongings taken or being pressured to give over virtual items or currency during games or on other platforms. 

  • Being threatened or pressured into doing things.
  • Someone making negative comments, spreading rumours or deliberately upsetting them. 

  • Someone posting about them on social media or sharing their photos and personal information without permission.

2. Learn about Social Media Sites Together

In some cases, for children with autism, socialising online can be easier and less intense than face-to-face interactions. Having open, clear conversations (using the person’s preferred form of communication) can support them to get the best out of social media and the internet.

Consider looking together at the platforms they use or are thinking about using. Learning together is a great way to understand the functions and risks online.

You might want to discuss the general functions of social media such as talking to people, making friends, sharing images and talking about shared interests.

Talking about why people use social media will support the child to build an understanding of how social media works.

If the child or young person already uses social media, it might be helpful to discuss what it is they find useful:

illustration of a hand holding a phone with a social media account
  • Ask them why they want to use a social media site – is it to talk to their friends? Meet new people? Look at photographs from around the world?
  • Have a discussion about which platforms they currently use and if there are any they find stressful or that are making them unhappy?

  • Are there any platforms they have heard about or would like to know more about?

Here’s our Top 10 quick tips that you can share and go over together:

  1. Don’t post your personal information online where strangers can read it.
  2. Regularly check your privacy settings – you can ask for help with checking if you want.
  3. If someone is pressuring you into doing something you don’t want to do, tell your trusted adult. Learn more about Trusted Adults here.
  4. Learn how to ‘block’ a user on each social media platform you use. Visit our Safety Centre to find out how.
  5. Talk to your trusted adult or a family member about ‘oversharing’ online.
  6. Keep your passwords private and only share them with your trusted adult. Check out our Cyber Security ToolKit for more information on choosing a safe and secure password.
  7. If someone is asking you for money or to give them something that you paid for, check with a trusted adult if this is okay.
  8. If someone is calling you mean words or making fun of you, it’s okay to ‘block’ them or stop being their friend. Talk to a trusted adult about this.
  9. Remember that people lie online, for lots of different reasons. Check with a trusted adult if you’re not sure whether something is true or not.
  10. Just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer! If someone is asking you personal questions, it’s okay to say you don’t want to answer.

3. Talk about trusted adults and when they should ask for help

When talking to children and young people with autism about online safety it is essential to highlight and discuss pathways to seek support.

They may already know who they might talk to if they were worried or upset, but it can be helpful to take this a step further and discuss how they would talk to a trusted adult.

All children and young people may find it difficult at points to talk to someone they trust about something that’s worrying or upsetting them.

All children should be able to identify:

  • Who their trusted adults are – this could be a family member, teacher, coach, youth worker or somebody else they trust.
  • How they would communicate with them – is this verbally, visually (drawing) or writing something down.

A focus on preferred communication styles can support children with autism to communicate with those who can support them. It can also help to practice these conversations.

Use our trusted adults’ Makaton video below to help support your conversation with the children in your care.

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