Autism: Feeling lonely in a hyperconnected world

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light. –Helen Keller

Hyperconnectivity is a modern word that is rapidly making inroads into our colloquial language.  It was invented by Canadian social scientists Anabel Quan-Haase and Barry Wellman to help explain a new aspect of our everyday reality: the trend towards an ever-increasing number of social contacts in a world where networking is achieved via computer interactions. Wikipedia, an example of a hyperconnectivity leveraged collective effort, has evolved alongside innovations in communication technology. Unfortunately, the emergence of computer driven networked efforts tends to blur the distinguishing traits of its individual contributors. Indeed, the present Technological Age has propitiated a socialization shift from one-to-one encounters to faceless digital interactions. 

For many autistic individuals the digital age is seen as an advantage.  Newly established social relationships are not demanding, nor do they carry the same emotional load as face-to-face interactions. Communicating through the internet does not depend on verbal or nonverbal cues, and the need for social skills is limited and often irrelevant. One would be mistaken to assume that the internet has empowered autistic individuals. Behaviors that we consider to be of “human nature”, those that allow us to fit into society, are learned from our interactions with family members, schoolmates and with our peers. Personal interactions, rather than computers, provide us with a system of values, norms, and beliefs.

The Technological Revolution has brought about a new paradox, one in which increased hyperconnectivity engenders a greater discrepancy between our desired and actual social relationships.  Hyperconnectivity does not prevent social isolation because it was never about the quantity of relationship but, rather, the quality of the same.  Carl Jung once famously said, “Loneliness does not come from having no people around, but from being unable to communicate the things that are important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible”.  You need to be intimately connected to other people in order to achieve social affirmation. The “friends” you make through the internet often remain online. For many autistic individuals the internet drives them into isolation, becoming more passive, and prone to victimization via cyberbullying. It is therefore unsurprising that for some of them a daily dependency on the internet rapidly erodes their social skills.

When a child is punished, he/she is placed in a time-out. This is social isolation. In many cases, being in isolation, as a punishment, makes the subject resilient and better able to understand social behavior.  The time spent in time-out thus becomes a learning experience. But what happens when you get stuck in this state?  Loneliness then becomes an emotion, a stressor, a psychological and physical pain. It affects our sleep and makes us focus on the negatives of our lives.  Unfortunately, many autistic behaviors that characterize the disorder reinforce traits leading to isolation.

The wear and tear of loneliness places an allostatic load on the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems.  In neurotypicals, problems related to loneliness tend to be detected at an older age.  In autism, such problems are evident in childhood and tend to snowball throughout their lives.  Isolation leads to a sedentary life, lack of exercise, chronic pain, depression, obesity, and heart disease.

Don’t consider the use of the internet as a behavioral intervention. Weigh the positives aspects of internet usage along with the negatives and take appropriate actions. The following are some suggestions from The Autism Blog (http://bit.ly/1WcvqgW):

· Parents should monitor social media closely and should have access to account passwords. Young people with ASD are likely to learn social media later than their peers. They also may lack social nuance awareness that puts them at risk for problematic online interactions, including cyber-bullying.
· Parents should give a ten minute warning prior to ending screen time. At the point at which screen time access is over, parents should use clear and calm communication and should avoid negotiating over additional screen time.
· Parents should avoid demonizing digital technology. With open conversation, parents can establish limits and boundaries for screen time, without creating an adversarial interaction. Digital media is very engaging, there is no denying it. As adults, we can respect digital media while still respecting our boundaries.

Digital interactions are superficial. “A smiley can never be a replacement for a real smile.” We must use digital interactions to our benefit, not detriment.

References

Casanova MF. Autism: The importance of social interactions and the internet. Cortical Chauvinism, 2015.

Casanova MF. Autism and the sedentary life. Cortical Chauvinism, 2017.

Casanova MF. Exercise and autism. Cortical Chauvinism, 2017.

Casanova MF. Autistic Burnout: challenging symptoms and ineffective therapies. Cortical Chauvinism, 2019.

Casanova MF. Behavioral inflexibility and autistic burnout. Cortical Chauvinism, 2019.

8 responses to “Autism: Feeling lonely in a hyperconnected world

  1. Great article, Dr. Casanova! As an late-dx adult with ASD, social media platforms have helped me find online friends who have similar daily challenges, and who’ve had similar life experiences. One of the benefits in these social media friendships is there is an inherent asynchrony in online communication, along with a (typically) generous latitude given to asynchronous communication. I’m highly verbal, but a slow communicator; in my social media friendships with other neurodiverse individual I’ve found my lags in conversation and contact are accepted. With my NT friends, I feel like I am always apologizing for late replies, for slow communication, and for my numerous misunderstandings. Also, my online friends are all over the world, and I’ve found I have much in common with my ASD social media contacts in Australia, England, and The Netherlands. As always, I enjoy reading your blog posts and appreciate your contributions to the Autism community.

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    • Thank you for the comment. I am happy that the new technology has been of benefit to you. Maybe the fact that you are highly verbal and found the technology as an adult played a role in your positive experience. My concern is for those that hide away in a room for all day to the exclusion of doing anything else. Unfortunately this is a common experience. Thanks again, your comments are always appreciated.

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  2. I associate Social Media with the nicotine phenomenon of the 1960s. Nobody knew smoking was a health risk. Social Media unfortunately dominated over educational I.T. I notice especially that knowledge now is connected to “likes”. Social media encourages us to tell people what they “like” to hear, so reality may be displaced. Bleuler referred to the extreme of this as “Ambivalence”, as we know. We can filter out what we don’t like and create a new reality, founded on desire, as opposed to intellect and fact. Internet has much to offer but needs to be channeled and not allowed to displace our own potential. Many people use it sensibly but others may be missing out on the university of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Dr.Casanova, As being a mother of a dyslexic son, I also think I am hyperconnected to the world with social media. I am over relying on whatsapp in everyday and business conversation. And sometimes I am the victim of bullying. The asynchronous nature of social media also makes me more listened. As in normal life, my speed of speaking is slower than normals (although I am not diagnosed with anything) and my speech does not involve tones. Because it seems to be supernatural to use tones to me, however when I use it, people understand and value me more. There is a natural tendency for a dyslexic kid to use computers, and sometimes it is at the level of dependency. Sometimes very difficult to stop it and replace it with a more meaningful communication and learning. Being overly dependent on the computers also reduce the daily action time, and increase the rate of comorbidities like hypertension and migraines.
    All the best,

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I completely agree. This is a major problem when it affects children. Parents believe that the internet is their babysitter and if left alone in their rooms nothing will happen. This is a common problem generalizing across developmental conditions. Unfortunately it is not being paid adequate attention.

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      • I remain surprised psychologists today had nothing to say about the effect of global I.T. on I.Q. or intelligence. I feel internet affects the brain the same way machines gradually weaken our muscles. We walk less and are less active. We don’t need to think deeply and ponder problems since quick answers can be referenced. That weakens the potential of the brain that requires “a circuit load”, goals to attain, answers to seek and questions to puzzle over. And quiet to think deeply. Psychologists should have taken a position over how global social media can alter the brain. To say nothing of decreased activity and a new ideology of “fear of the outside world”. I know the 1940s was never a golden era but people from that era on film always strike me as healthier, more strong minded and active. Just to see a movie meant going to the cinema with friends and a night out.

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