Recently a friend reached out to me to ask if I offered workshops for special needs children. She reached out to me, because anyone that knows me personally knows that I have a lot of love for children with behavioral needs. While others sometimes look for patience, I look for other avenues to communicate. It’s the field I thought I’d go into – speech pathology – for me, that meant the art of communication.
So I asked my friend – why? Isn’t that how we always begin these conversations? Here’s her why:
“My child does not understand many social or verbal cues face to face. When I think about him online and not understanding social cues it makes me terrified. It makes me feel like he’s the perfect child for a predator to sneak up on …because in the end, he’s looking for someone to be kind and to like him.”
My friend is scared. She’s scared that she won’t know enough to be able to guide her children, and she’s scared of her child being hurt, bullied, or led astray. I began to research. What I’ve found instead is that social media can often be a window that lets in understanding. While face to face interaction is often overwhelming for many children with autism or other behavioral needs – being online gives them a moment. They can type something out and then take a moment to breathe and see if it’s appropriate. Through time and effort, these online interactions can actually improve face to face communication.
This doesn’t discount any fears a parent might have though. There is room for guidance and knowledge. I plan on putting together some information for my friend, and possibly a potential workshop or learning program. However, there’s some fantastic resources out there. To get you started, I’m going to link you to Autism Expressed and Digitability. For now… Here are some tips on how to help your kid be safely online.
1. Be Active On Social Media Yourself
If your kid wants to be on Facebook – be on Facebook. If she wants to be on Instagram or Twitter, be there too. You need to know what the set up looks like, how the privacy settings work, and figure out exactly how everything works.
Be honest. Tell your child that while you want them to branch out, explore, and learn the digital world – you will keep an eye on their profile. That for now, you need to know passwords so that you can see any conversation. Monitoring conversation isn’t all about snooping – it’s also about helping your child learn social skills. You can help them rephrase and reword information. Understand why they may be misunderstood when it seems so clear in their head. This also includes being your kids friend on these social media accounts. This does NOT mean you need to be active and posting on their page. In fact, the less you tag, comment, or like their posts, the more likely they’ll feel comfortable and kind of forget you’re lurking around to make a mistake.
For any social media account, you’ll need an email account. Set it up, keep the password, and if needed, go into the settings and make sure that every email communication is forwarded to yourself. Parents of kids without special needs might feel like this is crossing the line, but if you are nervous like my friend – there is nothing wrong with making the first email account for your preteen or teenager monitored. It’s a learning experience for everyone involved. As long as this is the email that is used for social media pages, you as the parent will also see all notifications and responses regarding your childs account.
Your children want and need to learn how to navigate through this digital space. Make this a together thing, and show them how to go beyond passwords and privacy settings. Once those are all set up, show them how to find their interests. This can be a learning experience for both of you. You might discover things your children are interested in and it might help your child broaden their own interests.
If your child likes you to comment – do it! Otherwise, maybe send little chats here and there to make your child smile. This is almost like leaving a note in a lunchbox. Something special your child can find. On Instagram, find those funny or cute profiles that your child will enjoy. By showing them what you found, they might be more willing to show you what they’ve stumbled on as well. Keep your eye on friends/followers profile pages as you monitor your child. Look for things that might not sit well in your gut and if needed, make it into a conversation.