By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a webinar by Justin Patchin, Ph.D., one of the foremost cyberbullying researchers. I have used his work myself in designing both my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation research, so it was wonderful to hear him speak. He began with a story about his childhood and some of the rules he was taught – don’t meet up with strangers that you meet online, don’t get into anyone’s car if you don’t know them well – lessons I was also taught as a child. These are the kind of rules that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often crave – black and white, clear, no middle ground. The online world, he argued, does not allow for such stark and rigid rules. Rather, he says, it calls for “guidelines.” Working with children with ASD, when I hear “guidelines,” I think, “grey,” “fuzzy,” and “it depends.” These can be some of the toughest situations for an individual who is not neurotypical.
I think he’s right. The online world is fast, fluid, ever-changing, and highly dependent on specific circumstances. It calls for the kind of flexible thinking and evaluation of context that kids with ASD are so often challenged by. Yet, as the adults parenting, educating, and supporting these young people, these are exactly the skills that they need. The online world is not going anywhere anytime soon, and it is not likely to slow down either.
Cyberbullying is one of the difficult online phenomena to manage, as youth who are bullied online are most frequently also bullied in “real life,” usually at school. The bullies are often peers they know and must see on a regular basis. For children with social challenges, navigating bullying that is occurring across settings is an especially difficult task. And the solution is not to take away technology. Now more than ever, children need access to technology for homework, classwork, enjoyable peer activities, and hobbies. Where does that leave us?
Unfortunately, Dr. Patchin did not give any practical advice for how to support individuals with autism around cyberbullying. I think that one important starting point is to help these individuals learn to check in with themselves. Time and time again, I hear from students, “I’m not really sure what was going on, but I think they were being mean.” (In fact, I hear this from children who are decidedly not on the autism spectrum, especially when bullying is occurring by older peers.) Bullying is hurtful (intentionally so), and recognizing that hurt is an important first step. Once children and adolescents identify that something is hurtful, adults can help and support them in navigating through the situation.
Whether bullying, cyberbullying, or a misunderstanding, it is important for adults to listen carefully when children come to us with social concerns. In addition, we must have a solid understanding of the online world in which students are living, learning, and engaging. Social media shifts rapidly, with new platforms becoming wildly popular in a matter of weeks. Working with youth requires us to keep as current as we can, making certain that we understand the “ins and outs” of each platform. It is also incumbent upon us to ensure that all children and adolescents (not just those with an autism diagnosis) learn guidelines that will allow them to safely make their way through a constantly evolving world of platforms, apps, and services. Safety online is as critical as safety in person.
About the Author
Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.
Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.
Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.
Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.