October 3rd, 2016

Internet Safety Skills: Not Optional

the 'Google' logo is reflected in a person's eyes

It’s happened again. Peyton Pruitt, a neurodivergent young adult his in prime youthful indiscretion years, has gotten into serious trouble on the internet. This time, there is national news coverage because the story is colorful. Outside of the disability community, this case has contributed to ongoing discussions about the appropriate use of terrorism charges. There are different conversations that the disability community needs to have because this isn’t the first time. These issues come up in less dramatic ways fairly often. These conversations are especially crucial in the Autistic community. The internet is a tool that seems to fit our hands uncommonly well. So much of our culture and community exists online. Unless we’re willing exclude the young, people who are so lonely that it makes them vulnerable, and Autistics who may be easily manipulated because of other disabilities from parts of our community life, we need to find better ways to help people stay safe online. We also need to press professionals working with transition-age youth to address this issue.

The internet has connected the disability community in exciting ways, forging connections between people who wouldn’t have ever known each other without it. These stories strike particularly close to home for me, as they probably do for many who identify with the Neurodiversity Movement, the Autistic community, or both, because of our particular relationship with the internet. For better or worse, social media and blog culture are big parts of who we are. For better or worse, the internet has a powerful hold on a lot of us. Many or most of us have been lonely kids on the internet. Almost all of us who met this description at some point in our lives made better choices than Mr. Pruitt did. We may have tried on some weird subcultures, but that kind of youthful self-discovery isn’t in the same ballpark as aligning oneself with Daesh. Finding a quirky bunch of online friends is different from befriending murderers and torturers. Mr. Pruitt should be held accountable for the terrible mistake he made.

All the same, I find it uncomfortably easy to trace how he reached his current predicament. If most Autistic social media people, programmers, gamers, bloggers, vloggers are honest with themselves, they will probably feel the same way. Many of us are inevitable internet people. We couldn’t have been born at at time when this network exists, in a society that gives us access to it, and kept our hands off of this tool. The world-encircling brain foreseen by Tesla feels like a friend and is something that works well for us in a world full of challenges. It can be a source of friends, money, and protection from discrimination. Not all Autistic people are like that, but there will always be Autistic people like that. Some of them may have impairments that I don’t. An intellectual disability doesn’t necessarily preclude seeing patterns, figuring out structures and systems, and being drawn to the internet’s scale and complexity. What are people who love the internet, who are good with the internet, supposed to do if they are more easily manipulated than most people or struggle with assessing risk or figuring out the rules?

Some would say they should stay off the internet altogether, but that isn’t possible. Getting online is too easy and inexpensive. Someone who wants the internet will find a way. More importantly, no one who values inclusion would ever ask it of them. We cannot exclude people from something that is such an important part of work and play on the basis of disability. We can’t exclude everyone with an IQ below some arbitrary cutoff or some other impairment that might come with vulnerability from large parts of the Autistic community. Someone who is marginalized because of an intellectual disability may need the role of being good at something more than most people. Someone who is especially vulnerable may need to be able to turn to the internet for protection more than the rest of us. Some Autistics with other impairments, like many without, may find that it is the way in which they most easily connect with others. No one will, or should be asked to, give up human contact and connection.

What we can do is practice more inclusion. It sounds like Mr. Pruitt was a textbook example of a person with a disability who was not included. He spent time in an institution and with close relatives. Aside from his online life, that seems to have been it. Lonely teens with and without disabilities have always had the tendency to fall into bad company. Something as simple as a volunteer commitment with reasonably friendly coworkers twice a week might have made Daesh less appealing to this young man. He might also have benefited from explicit advice on using the internet safely. It isn’t clear that Mr. Pruitt fully understood what the consequences of his actions cold be for himself and others. He seems to have had more access and less guidance than most teens without disabilities do these days. He probably isn’t the only person his age who isn’t getting adequate instruction about using the internet safely, and that should concern everyone who deals with transition-age youth still in their teens but old enough that their words and actions are taken seriously, old enough, sometimes, to be tried as adults.

Professionals seeking to address this issue might look to sex education for people with I/DD as a starting point. Sexuality raises the same concerns. It’s important enough that we can’t ask vulnerable people not to engage in it for the convenience of their caregivers. It’s risky enough that people have to be taught how to stay safe while enjoying it. This is just another area of life in which a person may have a hard time intuitively navigating the boundaries of the law and complex social expectations. It’s another set of essential skills for adult life that professionals working with transition-age youth need to teach. Any transition plan made for a neurodivergent teen, especially an Autistic teen, without consideration of whether the youth knows how to use the internet and use it safely is incomplete. It isn’t clear that better instruction would have given Pruitt a great outcome. Few teenagers whose lives are completely devoid of adults engaged enough to notice major changes in interests and behavior have ideal outcomes regardless of disability. However, his outcome might have been better than indefinite state supervision if he had understood that the internet, apparently his only companion, is not to be implicitly trusted.

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