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.
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.