Autistic Future
October 12th, 2019

Advice for Young Autistics (and Others Growing Up on the Internet)

As the U.S. moves fur­ther into an impeach­ment inquiry and anoth­er pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, as the world deals with a time of upheaval, there is advice I want to share with peo­ple grow­ing up on the inter­net. I pri­mar­i­ly address young Autis­tics, but what I have to say applies to every teen and young adult grow­ing up and com­ing of age online. This isn’t the first time I’ve writ­ten about Autis­tics’ rela­tion­ship with the inter­net. It isn’t the first time I’ve offered sug­ges­tions for peo­ple who are young or oth­er­wise new to the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty. It is the first time I’ve found a way to explain some­thing it took me a long time to learn, the advice I wish I’d received at the begin­ning: you need to know that the inter­net will give you what you want. Not what you need. Not what you should want. The inter­net will give you what you want. If you want to pre­dict how seri­ous engage­ment with the inter­net and social media will affect you, how safe, ben­e­fi­cial, unsafe, or detri­men­tal to you and oth­ers it will be, you have to know your­self. If you don’t think you know your­self well enough to be pret­ty cer­tain of how things will turn out, you aren’t at the right point in your life to spend sig­nif­i­cant time online.

Almost any kind of infor­ma­tion, ide­ol­o­gy, nar­ra­tive, or com­mu­ni­ty a per­son could ever want exists online. Every­thing has a Face­book group, a Red­dit thread, a forum, a week­ly Twit­ter chat. The inter­net lives to serve the peo­ple who real­ly know how to use it. It will take you where you want to go, to the peo­ple you’re look­ing for, with­out pass­ing judge­ment on the val­ue of what you’ve asked it for. It won’t hide some­thing from you that might be bad for you for you. It won’t ask you to stop and think before it ful­fills a ques­tion­able wish. It won’t cau­tion you that what you’re try­ing to find may not be con­ducive to a hap­py or moral life. It will sense your heart’s desire and act on it even if you would be hard pressed to explain what you want to a good friend, even if you would strug­gle to artic­u­late it to your­self. The inter­net is nev­er going to explain the nature of the request you’ve made and sit you down to talk over whether it’s real­ly a good idea. It will just give you what you want.

This isn’t always a bad thing. If what you’re after is con­nec­tion with like-mind­ed peo­ple, you will prob­a­bly get the per­son­al or pro­fes­sion­al con­tacts you need. If you are seek­ing knowl­edge and want to learn with an open mind, what you will find will prob­a­bly exceed your wildest dreams. You can use the inter­net to make new friends, make mon­ey, move your career for­ward by carv­ing out a rep­u­ta­tion in your field and build­ing a per­son­al brand, edu­cate and improve your­self, or work for social change. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for build­ing a bet­ter life or a bet­ter world are vir­tu­al­ly lim­it­less. If you want good things at the out­set, you will have one of the most pow­er­ful human achieve­ments of all time on your side. The inter­net could be the long enough lever and place to stand that lets you move the world.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it will help you just as much if the things you want are bad, either for you or for oth­ers. If what you want is cama­raderie at all costs, even if it means harm­ing oth­ers or adopt­ing unsa­vory ideals, you will prob­a­bly get that. If some part of you would like per­mis­sion to believe you’re bet­ter than oth­er peo­ple, you will find a com­mu­ni­ty and an ide­ol­o­gy that per­mits you to dehu­man­ize oth­ers. You may find your­self falling into aspie suprema­cy, reli­gious extrem­ism, misog­y­ny, or the racism, anti­semitism, and xeno­pho­bia of the alt right. If you want a scape­goat to blame and pun­ish for your prob­lems, the inter­net will find one for you. Not every­one who fol­lows those paths ends up per­pe­trat­ing some­thing like the Christchurch shoot­ing, but some peo­ple do. Many more fill up with hate and fes­ter, inflict­ing pet­ty cru­el­ties on oth­ers, fail­ing to accom­plish their goals because blam­ing some­one else makes it dif­fi­cult to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for mov­ing one’s own life for­ward. Big­ots and extrem­ists are always recruit­ing. The inter­net will con­nect you with them if you want what they have to offer. If some cor­ner of your psy­che wants to abdi­cate respon­si­bil­i­ty for your life more qui­et­ly and sink into learned help­less­ness, the inter­net will intro­duce you to peo­ple who will val­i­date that impulse and give it per­mis­sion to grow. What­ev­er your polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal lean­ings, it will give you lies and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries if you want con­tent that sup­ports what you already think more than you want con­tent that is thought­ful and fac­tu­al­ly accurate. 

The fun­da­men­tal law of the inter­net is that you reap what you sow. It’s a boost, an enhancer, an ampli­fi­er. Whichev­er way you’re lean­ing, it will give you a hard shove in that direc­tion. You would be wise to take a hard, hon­est look at which way you’re lean­ing before you decide to wade in and spend a sig­nif­i­cant amount of your spare time online. If you decide to get heav­i­ly engaged with the inter­net and social media at this point in your life, expect it to be a test of your char­ac­ter with real con­se­quences. If some soul-search­ing reveals that you might fail that test, or that you’re not sure you know your­self well enough to be con­fi­dent about what will hap­pen, be care­ful. Con­sid­er lim­it­ing how much space in your life the inter­net gets. This may be a good time to hold off on meet­ing new peo­ple or check­ing out new tags, threads, and forums. It may also be ben­e­fi­cial to ask some friends to keep an eye on you and hold you account­able. Mon­i­tor your­self, too. Watch for changes in your mood or behav­ior. Ask your­self about the accu­ra­cy and val­ue of the con­tent you’re con­sum­ing, whether and how it adds val­ue to your life, why you’re drawn to it, which of your needs it meets. If some­thing has a bad effect on you, drop it. There is no short­age of oth­er things to try.

Your par­ents may have dis­count­ed the impor­tance of things that hap­pen online. If you’re read­ing this, you prob­a­bly know bet­ter than that. The inter­net is just anoth­er slice of the real world these days, albeit one where the rules are dif­fer­ent, where the log­ic and norms of the rest of soci­ety some­times break down or get invert­ed. What hap­pens there has con­se­quences for you and for oth­ers. Wad­ing deep into the inter­net at the wrong point in your life could lead to mis­takes you can’t take back or shifts in your char­ac­ter and val­ues that may prove hard to reverse. Be care­ful. Use good judge­ment. Ask old­er peo­ple you trust to help and advise you along the way. Most of all, know your­self. Fig­ur­ing out who you are is one of your most impor­tant jobs right now. The answer you get will have con­se­quences for all of us, so do your best to make it a good one.