Right now, in the midst of the pandemic, the autistic community is in a very vulnerable place. With former commitments and structures stripped away or altered in format, it can be difficult for us to cope, especially those of us who may face social isolation due to challenges with social skills or health issues.
Social media is a highly adaptable tool for alternative socialization. Many people on the spectrum prefer communicating on the internet over face-to-face interaction for many reasons, but it’s important that we navigate social media as a tool, keeping our emotional well-being and safety a top priority.
Social media has been a crucial tool for my wellbeing during this pandemic. It’s helped me stay in touch with classmates and friends, connect with people who have similar experiences, and connect with clinicians who can further my success in the field I am pursuing. I have carefully curated my feed to be part of my self-care, while also helping me be an activist for the neurodivergent community.
Understanding that social media is a coping mechanism and that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing was really good for my psyche. I’ve explained to clinicians before that as an autistic person, I might not be social in person, but instead find alternative formats that I’m more comfortable with. Although I do miss meeting with people face-to-face, the wonderful thing is that social media is very flexible to communication needs. You can choose between video chatting, voice messaging, phone calls, comments, direct messaging, and emojis – there is no shortage of ways to communicate depending on comfort level. This is something I greatly enjoy.
As I mentioned above, internet safety is important, and while most people may think it only applies to not giving out personal information such as addresses, avoiding people who may cause harm, and reporting inappropriate behavior, it’s also worth mentioning the effect social media usage can affect mental health.
My perspective is that I as a person have limited time, resources, and energy. I make space and advocate for what needs to be advocated for, but I still balance it with making sure that the content I am consuming is benefitting me in some way. Social justice pages are wonderful for me to learn how to provide the best care for future clients who may have a different ethnic or racial background than me, and I try my best to elevate the voices that need to be heard.
That said, I am careful about my locus of control and acknowledge that, as a person on the spectrum, my joy can be an act of rebellion itself. I try to check in with myself about how the content I’m seeking out is making me feel, and also why I may be on social media in the first place. Is it to cope with difficult feelings? A desire to socialize?
I am already doing all I can to make the world a better place. It is important to be informed, but it is also important to let myself know at the end of the day that I have done enough, and that my productivity does not correlate with my worth. It is important to rest, to ride feelings like waves, because we can only create change when we are doing alright and energized. I am aware that this comes with certain privileges, but at the core of my advocacy, I cannot help anyone if I reach the point of burnout. By practicing self care, I am able to maximize my impact in making measurable change that improves the lives of everyone.
In a way I view my social media usage as a way to prevent myself from getting into a crisis. By staying connected I am able to navigate mental health challenges and issues more easily. It becomes easier to cope in company, and know I’m not alone. Sometimes, playing a game with a friend before bed can make a huge difference in how I’m feeling mental health wise.
One thing I love is that on the internet, people generally have short attention spans. I cannot think of a better arena to flex the muscles of social skills through quick exchanges, getting legible and almost instantaneous feedback, before moving on. My freshman year of college I could barely email a professor without having six people review it and assure me that it wasn’t somehow offensive.
Direct messaging people on Reddit for quick exchanges helped me overcome this anxiety. No facial expressions to worry about (other than emojis) or complex social cues: just cold, hard, direct communication through the written word.
If I messed up, it was quickly forgotten. I started messaging so many people I could barely keep track, and therefore barely be worried about who got back to me and who didn’t. Instead of having a high stakes situation where I was anxiously awaiting a reply to a carefully curated message to one specific person, I barely noticed when someone didn’t return my bids for connection.
People are lonelier than you think! People want to connect and be with friends, I’ve seen no shortage of people on different forums asking for someone to talk to. That being said, it is important to note that there can be some shady people out there, be conscious of the people you talk to and how they affect your mental health. If you feel really depressed, there are resources to get help to feel better: see if you can access a counselor through your school or in your community.
With proper internet safety precautions, navigating social media can be a great place to connect with people and grow as a person. It’s helped transform my life in so many ways and connected me with community when I needed it the most.
Anna Illes is a neurodivergent speech pathology and audiology undergraduate studying at Cal State University East Bay. She has been active in her advocacy of bridging the gap between the autistic population and clinicians to create a better world for everyone. In addition to doing panels educating prospective marriage and family therapists and providing an autistic perspective to clinicians, she enjoys connecting autistic people in need to helpful resources when they need them most.