International Meeting for Autism Research: Neurodiversity and the Internet: A Survey of Individuals with Autism, Family Members, and Others

Neurodiversity and the Internet: A Survey of Individuals with Autism, Family Members, and Others

Friday, May 13, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
9:00 AM
K. Gillespie-Lynch1, S. K. Kapp2, D. S. Smith3, P. M. Greenfield3, J. Atkinson3, A. Navab4 and T. Hutman5, (1)Los Angeles, CA, (2)Moore Hall, Box 951521, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, (3)UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, (4)University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, (5)Psychiatry, UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, Los Angeles, CA
Background:  The neurodiversity movement, a civil rights moment started by individuals with autism, contests the pathologization of behavioral differences arising from neural differences (Harmon, 2004). Qualitative evidence suggests that the temporal asynchrony and text basis of Internet communication provides a medium wherein individuals with autism connect with one another and learn about neurodiversity (Bagatell, 2010; Blume, 1997). While online groups for individuals with autism often espouse neurodiversity-related viewpoints such as rejection of a cure, groups for family members of individuals with autism often conceptualize autism as an affliction (Brownlow, 2010). The current study is the first to quantitatively assess whether the Internet facilitates exposure to the neurodiversity movement and whether conceptions of neurodiversity-related topics differ between individuals with autism (ASD) and two groups of non-autistic participants:  relatives of autistic people (Family), and people without autistic relatives (Unrelated).


  1. Evaluate if the Internet facilitates communication for ASD.
  2. Determine whether ASD learn about neurodiversity through the Internet more than non-autistic people do.
  3. Examine whether ASD, Family, and Unrelated express different emotions about and ways of responding to autism.

Methods: 204 ASD, 60 Family, and 98 Unrelated participants were recruited to an Internet survey from autism advocacy and support groups, forums and discussion boards, social networking sites, schools, vocational rehabilitation centers, and Craigslist. The AQ (Baron-Cohen, 1998) was administered to all participants. Age, gender, and education were entered into all univariate analyses. Results significant at (p=.001) are reported. When no differences between the Family and Unrelated groups were observed, the combined group is described as non-autistic.

Results:  Univariate tests indicated that ASD felt the textual basis of the Internet supported communication more than non-autistics did. ASD and Family found the time to think provided by the Internet more beneficial for communicating than Unrelated.  ASD liked to use the Internet to meet people like them more than non-autistics.  Non-autistics liked to use the Internet to stay close to friends and family more than ASD. Chi-square tests indicated ASD were more likely to be aware of neurodiversity than non-autistics. Of people aware of neurodiversity, ASD more frequently learned about it on the Internet than non-autistics. ASD felt more proud and content about being autistic than non-autistic people thought they would. Univariate tests indicated that non-autistic people thought people with autism should spend more time face to face and control unusual behaviors more than ASD felt they should. Non-autistic people thought the parents of people with autism should seek a cure, teach typical behaviors, and learn the cause of autism more than ASD felt they should.  

Conclusions: The Internet supports communication for individuals with autism and is the medium through which they are most likely to learn about neurodiversity. ASD are more likely to espouse neurodiversity related viewpoints than non-autistics such as rejection of a cure, disinterest in the cause of autism, and positive emotions about autism. Family generally endorsed similar viewpoints to Unrelated individuals.  Despite pronounced differences between individuals with autism and non-autistics in their conceptions about autism and neurodiversity, assessments of neurodiversity were far from uniform within groups.   


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