Autistic Future
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.