International Meeting for Autism Research: Assessing the Potential of Social Networking Sites as Social Forums for Individuals with Autism

Assessing the Potential of Social Networking Sites as Social Forums for Individuals with Autism

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
10:00 AM
G. Park1, K. Gillespie-Lynch2, D. S. Smith1, S. K. Kapp3, P. M. Greenfield1 and T. Hutman4, (1)UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, (2)Psychology, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, (3)Moore Hall, Box 951521, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, (4)Room 68-237, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA

Do Social Networking Sites (SNS) allow individuals with autism to compensate for difficulties socializing offline? SNS help other socially isolated groups, such as people with anxiety, overcome isolation (Pierce, 2009). Computers are reinforcing for individuals with autism (Moore & Calvert, 2000) who may use computer based social interaction to compensate for reduced face-to-face interaction (Benford, 2008). While Internet use may facilitate the formation of social connections, individuals with autism report difficulties recognizing online social codes and maintaining connections formed online (Burke et al., 2010). Interactions on SNS often involve impression management (Boyd & Ellison, 2008) which could be difficult for individuals with autism. Usability analysis indicates that teenagers with autism may find SNS confusing (Bahiss et al., 2009). The current study is the first to quantitatively assess whether the frequency of SNS use differs between individuals with autism (ASD), relatives of autistic people (Family), and people without autistic relatives (Unrelated).


  1. Determine if overall Internet use is compensatory (negatively correlated with offline social interaction) for ASD, Family, or Unrelated.
  2. Evaluate enjoyment of and frequency of SNS use across groups.


204 ASD, 60 Family, and 98 Unrelated participants were recruited to an Internet survey from autism advocacy and family 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 statistical analyses. Reported p values index pair-wise comparisons following significant univariate tests.


Hours spent communicating online did not differ between groups. ASD spent less time interacting face-to-face than Family (p=.005) and Unrelated (p<.001).  However, hours communicating face-to-face were unrelated to hours communicating online.

ASD reported enjoying SNS less than Unrelated (p<.001).  While there were no group differences in enjoyment of SNS when communicating with friends with autism, Unrelated liked to use SNS to communicate with friends without autism more than Family (p=.031) and ASD (p=.001) liked to.

ASD used the following functions of SNS less than Unrelated: writing updates (p=.013), adding friends (p=.01), getting added (p=.004), getting tagged in pictures (p=.001), and commenting on pictures/having pictures commented on (p<.001). ASD had their walls written on and wrote and received emails less on SNS less than Unrelated (p<.001) and Family (p=.031).  Unrelated wrote on people’s walls, tagged people in pictures, and commented on others’ updates more than Family (p<.036) and ASD (p<.001).


This study only partially supports the hypothesis that individuals with autism use the Internet to compensate for difficulties communicating face-to-face. While ASD did spend less time interacting face-to-face than those without autism, no relationships between time spent interacting online and offline were observed.

As suggested by previous qualitative research (Bahiss et al., 2009), SNS are not a preferred medium for individuals with autism. Individuals with autism use many features of SNS less than people without autism. Often differences were only observed between ASD and Unrelated or even distinguished between Unrelated and Family. SNS use may index characteristics of the broader autism phenotype.

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