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Emerging Evidence Shows How Computer Messaging Helps Autistic Adults Communicate

Anecdotal reports suggest that autistic adults benefit from computer-based communication. Now the scientific evidence is building.

  • October 15, 2014

The conventional view of people with autism is that they are loners with little interest in initiating or maintaining relationships with other people. But that attitude is changing rapidly not least because of the growing evidence that exactly the opposite is true.

It turns out that the problem for many high functioning adults with autism has more to do with the conditions under which relationships occur rather than a lack of interest or ability to maintain them.

A particular challenge is the complex, fast changing, and varied conditions under which communication occurs. People with autism tend to prefer environments in which communication is highly structured with few distracting signals to cause sensory overload.

One way to achieve this is with computer-mediated communication, such as text, e-mail, instant messaging, and so on. These forms of contact give each partner plenty of time to think about the messages and their replies at their own pace. What’s more, these communication channels do not have additional signals such as body language that also need to be processed.

So it is not hard to see why computer-based communication ought to be ideally suited to people with autism. However, there is little evidence to show whether or not this is true. What’s needed is a study that compares the communication patterns of people with autism against a control group of individuals without autism.

Today, Aske Plaat at Leiden University in the Netherlands and a few pals say they have carried out just such a study. These guys have compared the computer-based communication patterns of over 100 high-functioning adults with autism against a control group of around 70 individuals without autism. And their findings provide a fascinating insight, not only into the way in which technology can help autistic individuals, but into their levels of life satisfaction as a result.

Plaat and co begin by recruiting volunteers for both groups and asking them to fill out a number of questionnaires about the way they use the Internet and various computer-based forms of communication. They also asked individuals to fill in a standard questionnaire about their well-being and a standard test that measures their degree of autism. They also collected basic details about their sex, age, occupation, whether single or in a relationship, and so on. Finally, they mined the resulting data looking for interesting correlations.

The results show clear differences between the groups. Plaat and co say that people in the autistic group tended to use computer-based communication just as much or more than the control group and tend to appreciate it more and in different ways. They also have more online friends on average than the control group.

To find out why, the team simply asked people in both groups about their preferences. One advantage for the autistic group is that te slower pace of text, e-mails and the like reduces the need for an immediate response and gives people more time to think. The control group also say that time flexibility is an advantage of computer-based communication but for a different reason. In this case, the advantage is mainly convenience: being able to reply in one’s own time. “All in all, people with autistic spectrum conditions name and value advantages that help to mitigate their autistic impairments, while for controls aspects of convenience seem more relevant,” say Plaat and co.

The team also says that the relationship between computer-based communication and well-being is significant as well. “People with autistic spectrum conditions are relatively satisfied with their online social life; more so than with their social life and their life in general,” say Plaat and co. “They still do not reach the level of satisfaction of controls, but the difference is smaller than in the other aspects of life, and on average, they are on the positive end on the scale.”

That provided some important insight into the role that computer-based communication can have in helping high-functioning adults with autism to build and maintain relationships and to contribute to their quality of life. However, it is hard to draw specific conclusions from this research about the benefits of computer-based communication.

One problem is with the design of this kind of study. For example, is the control group a reasonable comparison with the group with autism? Plaat and co say there are significant differences between the two groups with, for example, adults in the autistic group having lower levels of education given the same level of intelligence. People in the autistic group are more likely to be unemployed and so on.

These kinds of differences could themselves be responsible for the greater time that autistic adults spend online compared to the control. Somebody who is unemployed, for example, may have more time to spend online regardless of whether they are autistic.

Then there are questions over how to define the nature of friendship. Plaat and co allowed the individuals to use their own definitions but these may differ substantially between the groups. This is not something that the team was able to investigate. “We cannot rule out these alternative explanations, but still think that the friends and acquaintances acquired by [people with autistic spectrum conditions] play a meaningful role in their lives, given the relative satisfaction with their online social life,” they say.

Clearly, recruiting comparable individuals for this type of research is hard. But the message seems clear. Computer-based communication is an enabling technology for high functioning adults on the autistic spectrum giving them a greater sense of well-being in certain situations and increasing their ability to form relationships with others. Just how this can be improved further is a worthy goal.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1410.1087 : Computer-Mediated Communication in Adults with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions

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