The Internet and Autism: A Complicated Affair Tips for Effective Internet Surfing

byJoshua Metz, MSW

The Internet is arguably the greatest achievement of the 20th century. From it’s humble beginnings as a tool for University scientists to communicate to the vast open data fields of the world wide web where almost any piece of information is just a few keystrokes and mouse clicks away, the Internet has become a part of most people’s daily life.

For the parents of a child with a developmental disorder such as Autism though, the Internet can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Internet puts at the fingertips what is oftentimes the same information that is available to the doctors, psychologists, social workers, speech therapists and other professionals providing interventions for children and their families. Whether it’s a teacher looking for new strategies to teach self-help skills in the classroom or a psychologist looking for the latest research on joint attention, the Internet is the tool of choice. However, without some foresight and understanding of what to look for, expect, and/or avoid, searching the virtual volumes of electronic data can fraught with misinformation and dead ends.

Before embarking on Google or Bing search for that new treatment for autism that your friend heard about on the morning talk show, keep in mind the following helpful tips:

  1. Try to have a specific question in mind or idea of what you are looking for, before you go online.
    Having an idea of what you are looking for before you start your Internet search will save you time and effort. Be specific. If you know the intervention or therapy you have in mind, then you know what to look for. If not, look for websites that provide a summary of interventions and therapies. A good resource to help you get started isFirst Signs. If you are looking to broaden your knowledge of specific interventions, theNational Autism Center has recently completed its National Standards Project that catalogues and summarizes a variety of treatments for autism.
  2. Avoid web sites that claim a cure or dissuade you from looking at alternatives.
    Beware the salesman in doctor’s clothing, trying to make a quick buck by selling a particular intervention or asking you to join their organization for a small annual fee. Read carefully what the web site is trying to tell you, or sell you. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The best web sites that promote therapies or interventions for autism will be information-based, with links to providers in your area that you can contact and speak with “offline”. You may browse for a new car online, but you always take it for a test drive before you buy. The same goes for shopping for therapies online. If you can’t get to a real person or organization, it’s probably not worth exploring any further. A good example of an autism therapy website is DIR/Floortime’s www.icdl.com. Along with information about this developmentally based intervention program for children with autism, the website provides a searchable database of clinicians, links to research, and several different avenues in which to explore the intervention further (including area conferences and trainings, as well as formal certification programs for clinicians).
  3. Take only what you need and what fits.
    Just because the web site tells you that you need to do X, Y, and Z in order for your child to improve doesn’t mean that you should. Autism is a spectrum disorder, with a wide range of symptoms and behaviors that are addressed through interventions. And research and experience instructs us that progress in best achieved when an intervention program is tailored to the unique challenges and strengths of the child. Therefore, look closely at what an intervention offers and see what elements seem to fit best. Sometimes the whole package is right for you and should be pursued as such. Other times you may want to take a piece that your current comprehensive program is missing.
  4. Sign up or download at your risk
    Just like the warning you receive when shopping online, beware of giving over personal information (e.g. email address, phone number, physical address) or downloading files onto your computer. Before signing up or downloading anything, take some time to learn more about the web site and it’s creators. Visit the “About Us” section and review their privacy policies to determine what they are going to do with the information you provide. If the web site does not have a published privacy policy or information about its owners and creators, it’s best to move on to the next site on your list. When in doubt, keep your digital footprint to a minimum.In summary, for families of children with autism who are looking for information about what it is and/or what to do, the internet can be a tool that informs and emboldens. And like most tools, the more you know about what it can and can’t do, the better you will be at wielding it.
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