Whether we are comfortable with it or not, meeting potential friends and relationship partners online is very popular. According to eHarmony, 40% of Americans are using online dating sites to search for romantic partners. These days, there are several sites that are targeted specifically for people with ASD, like uneepi and SpectrumSingles.
Outside of dating sites, there are many ways that young adults meet and make friends online. They connect through social media sites, multi-player video games, fan fiction blogs, and podcasts, and other special interest groups. A quick survey of students at the CIP Brevard center revealed that most of them feel strongly that their online friends are equally as important as friends in real life. Although some have no intention of meeting their online friends in person, some do want a face to face encounter or a more involved relationship.
Young adults with Autism or Learning Differences is a vulnerable population because of their inherent challenges with understanding and navigating relationships and their struggles to develop friends in real life. They also have a tendency to want to isolate and some have obsessive interests in gaming and other online pursuits. Many of them have not had a true friend or have been taken advantage of because of their struggles. Finally, they are interested in or curious about aspects of dating and sexual relationships – but have not had a chance to learn or explore those interests.
The drawbacks of meeting people on the internet are concerning. If an individual with ASD starts to feel at ease or attracted to their virtual friend, they may not feel comfortable saying no if they are asked for identifying information, such as an address or picture. If someone has not been adequately protecting the privacy of their social media and other online accounts, or shares access to their information, they could be taken advantage of. Meeting in person carries an elevated risk of potential danger if safeguards are not in place.
What can parents and peers do to help young adults stay safer online and when meeting up in person with an online friend? At CIP, we teach the following safeguards for communicating over the internet and meeting in person:
When meeting up with someone you met online, stick with the following guidelines:
Most importantly, always use The Donkey Rule and ask the opinion of those you trust. Applying The Donkey Rule can help young adults with ASD avoid getting into a bind with an online friend or meet up situation.
Meeting someone online and then face to face can lead to a sincere friendship or dating relationship. Safely doing so requires guidance and coaching. By teaching young adults to use safeguards, they are given the opportunity to join many others in plugging into online relationships.
The College Internship Program is a comprehensive transition program for young adults on the Autism Spectrum and with Learning Differences. Our Mission is to inspire independence and expand the foundation on which young adults with Autism, ADHD, and other Learning Differences can build happy and productive lives.