Adolescents with AS or HFA lack interpersonal skills such as understanding personal space, reading facial expressions and body language, and staying on topic in a conversation. They can often feel like loners or outsiders. Peers often ridicule or reject them; at best, peers ignore them. People who have an AS or HFA diagnosis have a deficit in social understanding of what is being said, non-verbal social cues, and fluency which makes face-to-face conversations overwhelming. That said, with Instant Messaging, communicative partners do not need to worry about interpreting facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice. None of the individuals in an Instant Messaging chat can see the faces of others, and so the inequality in “face-reading” that usually exists is eliminated. By eliminating this stressor, youth may be better able to concentrate on the content of what is being said (or typed) to their peer.
Instant Messaging allows for a quick review of what was typed before sending. This allows for reflection about what to say and time to change the message before the communicative partner reads it. Unlike face-to-face conversation, this may reduce the number of inappropriate comments that are exchanged by youth with AS/HFA, thus reducing the potential negative response of the peer. The virtually real-time exchange of Instant Messaging can help an adolescent with AS/HFA learn to appropriately initiate, maintain, and end conversations while reading and interpreting the concrete cues that computer communication permits.
This study was designed to address the social skill deficits of older children and adolescents with AS/HFA by offering an alternative communication tool, Instant Messaging (IM) by examining how youth with AS/HFA learned to use Instant Messaging and their willingness and ease of communicating with others through Instant Messaging.
14 adolescents between 10 and 15 years of age with a diagnosis of AS or ASD were included in this IRB approved study. Parents and adolescents signed consent and assent respectively. Pre-test measures were taken for inclusion and baseline measures. Participants completed a 6 week Instant Messaging training to teach internet safety, setting up an email and IM account, appropriate IM’ing topics, how to initiate and end a conversation appropriately. All chats were monitored by the project investigator.
Participants reported enjoyment of instant messaging over face-to-face chats, and increased confidence exchanging chats with others. Over half (n = 8) of the participants continued IM’ing others in the study as well as peers from school and family at the 10 month online check.
Providing adolescents who have a difficult time socializing with peers an easier way to develop competence in social skills before adding the additional challenge of being face-to-face with a peer may help youth feel included and less victimized, thus reducing the risk of depression, problem behavior, and unsafe activities. While Instant Messaging is not a substitute for face-to-face encounters, it can be a safe and effective way to practice the necessary skills needed to be an active and suitable participant in a conversation.