Use of Social Networking Online and Social Emotions in ASD and Neurotypical Populations

Research Article

Austin J Autism & Relat Disabil. 2016; 2(1): 1014.

Use of Social Networking Online and Social Emotions in ASD and Neurotypical Populations

Di Laurenzio A and Prelock P*

Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Vermont, USA

*Corresponding author: Prelock P, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Vermont, USA

Received: January 06, 2016; Accepted: January 18, 2016; Published: January 20, 2016


In the past few decades, innovations in the use of technology to support learning have gained momentum for supporting individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), particularly for those with significant communication impairments. One technological media, Internet-usage, however, has seldom been studied in this population. With some of the most prominent features of ASD being social anxiety and pragmatic deficits, the Internet can and does act as a portal for less intimidating social interactions for individuals with ASD.

Methods: This exploratory study examined how usage of Social Networking Online (SNO) correlates with social difficulties, loneliness, and relationships for 56 adults with ASD (originally diagnosed with high-functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome) and neuro typical young adults. Through a 15-20 minute Skype interview (online video chat application) and a 15-minute online survey to measure use of social networking and internet habits this study also maps the trends in the uses of SNO between ASD and NT populations. Select questions from sections of the Diagnostic Observation Schedule assessed participants’ social emotions (soEmo). Both quantitative and qualitative analyses examined trends in how each community used the Internet and if use correlated with positive or negative emotions.

Results: Results from bivariate correlations indicated that NT and ASD populations differ in the types of SNOs they use, the actions they perform online and the reasons they participate in SNOs. Social Emotions (soEmo) also correlate with how individuals use SNO. Researchers and clinicians may wish to explore further the role of online communication in therapeutic settings in an effort to reduce negative social emotions among the ASD community.

Keywords: Social networking; Autism spectrum disorder; ASD; Internet; Asperger syndrome


ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder; NT: Neuro Typical; SNO: Social Network Online; soEmo: Social Emotions


Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are characterized by difficulty understanding nonverbal cues particularly in social contexts, displaying social-emotional reciprocity, and developing peer relationships [1,2]. Individuals with ASD often struggle to make sense of their social world, have difficulty interpreting relevant social cues in face-to-face encounters [3], and frequently demonstrate anxiety in novel situations. Individuals with ASD also display unusual approaches to social situations that may compromise the individual’s ability to make friends and sustain relationships [4]. As part of these deficits, individuals with ASD often have poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication most often characterized by gaze aversion and a mismatch of facial expressions to the social context. As a result of these foundational deficits in social skills during faceto- face interactions, individuals with ASD encounter difficulty interpreting jokes, recognizing prosody that dictates message intent, and answering questions/formulating responses [4]. Internet-based social venues eliminate the need for processing facial expressions, prosody and eye gaze typical in face-to-face interactions. Such venues may provide a more comfortable environment in which to initiate social interaction [5-9]. Although research examining ASD and Social Networking Online (SNO) has expanded significantly in the past several years, little is known about how individuals with ASD use the Internet and how Internet use impacts relationships and social emotions.

This study primarily sought to explore the uses of Social Networking Online (SNO) among persons with ASD and Neuro Typical (NT) populations with linguistic and cognitive abilities within the normal range. We also examined the possible link between Internet use and emotional affect related to acceptance, loneliness, and relationships for individuals with and without ASD. For this study, we used Jones, Zahl and Huws’ definition of an online community: 1) interactive 2) a common public place where members can meet and interact 3) having more than 2 communicators and, 4) having a sustained membership over time [10]. With 56 total participants in 2 main groups (ASD vs. NT), this study investigated if either population preferred online social networking to face-to-face interaction and looked for trends and patterns in what SNO(s) the person used, why they used it and what they chose to do while using their SNO(s).

ASD and the Internet. The Internet has proven useful in mediating discussions on illness/disease and disorder. [8] Showed increased mental and even physical wellbeing for breast cancer and some stigmatized illnesses (e.g., AIDS, lung cancer) through online support groups. Similarly [11], Discussed the “YouTube generation” using the Internet as a way to mediate illness. People who made online ties through some forum (a form of SNO) tended to be happier and healthier. Given the value of SNO in other populations with impairments, it may be that individuals with ASD who often lack the social supports characteristic of NT populations, may find some welcomed social connections through networking online.

The studies that have specifically investigated the online activity of individuals with ASD show intriguing results. There is a growing online culture focused on ASD [5], cited the Internet as a mode of creating connections and language, and advocating and reducing sensationalism among those with ASD. [12] Investigated online culture through online ASD self-advocacy. This study showed how individuals with ASD could express themselves without automatic judgment as in many face to face interactions. [7] Analyzed the most common types of messages communicated by children with ASD [13- 16]. They found messages were mostly comprised of informational support and emotional support. Though these studies were qualitative in nature, they provide insight into the Autistic mind and how the Internet could be an outlet for discussion and information dissemination. Conversely, however, Romano, Osborne, Truzoli, and Redd [13] found that high internet users showed decreased mood compared to low-internet users. ASD and other mood disorders were also associated with higher likelihood for internet addiction. This suggests that certain characteristics of internet use can potentially lead to lower social emotions [14].The current gap in the literature fails to address differences in internet use between groups of individuals with and without ASD or other comorbid behavioral or mood disorders (NT). Further, questions remain regarding how Internet use relates to an individual’s emotional traits.


Participants included 56 adults, ages 18-55 years (M= 24 years; SD=7.1). Twenty participants had ASD without significant linguistic or cognitive impairments and 36 participants were neuro typical without a history of behavioral, mood or cognitive impairments. Fifteen of these adults (five with ASD and 10 NT) also participated in a 15-20 minute Skype interview. The selection of young adults with ASD who had original diagnoses of high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome with high-cognitive and linguistic abilities was characteristics important for successful participation in the interview and completion of the online survey. The 20 participants with ASD were recruited from the Vermont area through several different websites. The 36 neuro typically-functioning participants were recruited through the University of Vermont, other local colleges, and several websites.

For the ASD group, the mean time spent online was 2.35 hours (ranging from 0 to 10 hours per day) with a standard deviation of 2.04 hours. The mean age was 27 (ranging from 18 to 55) with a standard deviation of 8.9 years. Sixty percent of the participants identified as female, thirty-five percent identified as male and the remaining five percent identified as unlisted gender identity. Forty percent had earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, 35% had finished secondary school or had a GED equivalent, 25% had completed primary/grade school. Eighty percent identified as Caucasian while 15% identified as two or more races. For the NT group, the mean number of hours spent online per day was 2.57 (SD=1.96). Mean age was 20.66 (SD=3.97). Eighty percent identified as female, 17% male, and 3% identified as other. Seventy-eight percent were Caucasian, 8% were two or more races. Sixty-three percent of the participants finished secondary school or held a GED equivalent. Twenty-eight percent completed a masters’ degree and the remaining 8% completed primary/grade school (Table 1).