The internet has become so well integrated into all our lives that it's easy to forget that there's an element of risk to being online. For someone with autism, it can be even harder to deal with those risks.

Our Community and Social Media Manager explains some of the hazards and advises what you can do to minimize them in order to make the most of everything the internet has to offer.

From behind, a girl with autism and her carer look at images on a computer

The benefits of being online

As a community manager, one of the most common benefits I see for people of using the internet is knowing that you're not alone.

Often when someone joins our forum and relates their difficulties, they find it gratifying when other users have had the same experiences. Young adults have shared their difficulties with education or social interaction, often leading to responses from other users about how they’ve learned over time to overcome similar issues. Sometimes it's just easier to talk to people and share your experiences from behind a screen.

The internet can be a great way to make new friends. If you have a special interest, finding others who share this can be the perfect way to connect with people. Be it an interest in trains, Doctor Who, or something craft-related, you'll probably find forums and groups dedicated to it.

For example, Minecraft is enormously popular among children on the spectrum, and with some research and monitoring, it's possible to find a safe forum for them to join. However, it's important to be aware of the risks related to being online, and to know how to address them.

There are numerous risks around children or vulnerable people using the internet, and the resources at the end of this article can help you mitigate them. Four risk areas which are particularly relevant to people with autism are misunderstandings, obsessiveness, bullying, and money issues.

1. Not understanding what other people mean

Having a lack of understanding of other people's intentions and meaning can put someone with autism at risk. Misunderstandings and arguments resulting from an inability to discern fact from fiction, or to interpret meaning, can cause upset or confusion.

What you can do…

It's always good to point out that not everything online is true and always try to use multiple sources of information for verification. A tendency to take things literally can make online communication very difficult – but there are specific forums out there for people with autism or special needs where this will be something the moderators and monitors are trained for. For example, NAS Community users will take care in their use of idioms if they know someone has difficulties with understanding them.

A young autistic woman sits on a sofa and plays with a tablet

2. Becoming obsessive

Over-reliance on the internet is something we are all vulnerable to – but this can be particularly problematic for people with autism. The internet can become an easy escape for anyone struggling with real-world issues. Whether it's games, friendly forums or even research, online activities can have an addictive effect on anybody.

For people with autism, becoming obsessive is even more of a risk. While many of us find it increasingly difficult to be disconnected from the internet, if it verges into causing distress this is likely to be a warning sign for someone on the spectrum.

What you can do…

It's best to monitor the amount of time spent on the internet and remember that many devices these days can get online, such as mp3 players. If you're planning out timetables in advance, you could include 'internet time', or have it assigned to specific purposes only, such as homework research. Have alternative sources of structured free time planned in as well.

However, remember that the internet can be a very welcoming, healing place. If it's not causing problems then it may be the best thing to cultivate calmness. Read further guidance on managing obsessive behaviour.

A young autistic man plays a computer game in his room

3. Being vulnerable to bullying or abuse

Unfortunately, there have been many tragic examples of online bullying over the last few years. As many people with autism are at higher risk of bullying, it's natural to be concerned. If the bullying is part of a continuous pattern of abuse both online and offline, you'll need to speak to either educational professionals or the police.

It's very rare, but there have been instances of children with autism being contacted inappropriately or vulnerable adults developing exploitative 'friendships' with those they’ve met online.

What you can do…

Generally, a lot of risks can be mitigated by having support in place from an appropriate person. The supporter can actively encourage the sharing of information relating to any bullying or abuse which might be happening. This is very important for online safety, and especially when the internet usage involves interacting with new people on a forum (as opposed to interacting with people you already know, such as on Facebook).

Make sure account access is shared with the supporting person and that they are aware of what forums are being used, and what their rules are. The NAS community, for instance, doesn't allow anyone under 16 to join.

Many sites offer privacy options and it can be tricky to work through them, as they can change often. Privacy settings protect your content, so always be careful who you add as a friend as they will have access to it.

Think about the photos you post and the updates you write, they are there forever and they can have consequences. Material online can be shared or captured by people beyond those it was originally shared with. Not everyone finds the same things acceptable, so do take care what you post about other people. Many sites have options to report or block problematic users or content. Never add strangers as 'friends' and make sure you have set up appropriate privacy settings.

When using a forum or interacting with strangers, always avoid sharing information that could be used to identify you and where you live. Pick a user name that doesn't include elements of your full name and use an image that isn't of you. The NAS community is anonymous, which allows users to discuss anything they may feel they need to whilst protecting their identity and the forum moderators actively remove information that could be used to identify anyone.

Other forums may not be the same, so avoid discussing specifics of where you go to school or work, contact details such as emails or telephone numbers, or the names of any professionals you have contact with.

Always keep in mind, that while unlikely, there's always a possibility someone may not be who they claim to be. There have been cases of people using forums to maintain long-term deceptions, which may be particularly difficult to detect if you're on the spectrum.

A young woman with autism and her carer look at a tablet together, seated at a table

4. Misuse of money

With the proliferation of mobiles, apps, and tablets, it's never been easier to shop, game, and find ways to spend money online. Gaming apps on mobiles are particularly popular. But beware, as some games manipulate you into buying extras in order for you to proceed. There's been a crackdown on the exploitative nature of these apps as they tended to take advantage of children and vulnerable people.

What you can do…

If you are a parent or carer and are worried about this, most devices can now be set up to require parental permission in order to purchase anything – so check this is switched on. Android tablets now offer the option to run separate user profiles which can be used to restrict access.

Be wary of apps that store your card data, such as online shops, which are designed to smooth over the purchasing process. Don't leave passwords written down and lying around and try to make them difficult to guess. Secure software exists for storing your passwords and security details – but they're only as secure as the password you use to access them.

As long as you are taking sensible steps to mitigate the risks, don't be put off using the internet. In most cases it's worth it, as it can be such a boon to people who may be isolated or looking to make new friends.

Useful websites and resources