Whether we are comfortable with it or not, meeting potential friends and relationship partners online is becoming 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.
Put Safeguards 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:
- Avoid giving any personal information to someone you met online. This includes last name, address, or any information about where you live or work.
- Do not accept or send friend requests or invitations to connect on social media from anyone you do not know, including friends of friends.
- Do not post contact information on social media or internet accounts, including your phone number.
- Use privacy settings to protect your information.
- Expect that any information that you share online could be viewed by anyone.
- Never share private pictures in which you can be identified.
- Never send money or account information to anyone you meet online. True friends don’t ask.
- Sad cover stories about needing help or money are usually false. Even when true, it is not your responsibility to help.
When meeting up with someone you met online, stick with the following guidelines:
- Only meet in public places. Do not go anywhere alone.
- Do not ride with anyone. Have a plan for transportation and funds of your own.
- Always share your plans with a friend or family member, so they know where you are going, with whom and when you plan to return. Follow up with them at the end of the meet up to reassure them you are safe.
- If you feel uncomfortable, use a cover story and leave.
- Use situational awareness to be sure you are not followed at the end of the meet up.
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.