Future of Cyber Safety and Autism

SARRC is developing a new online safety curriculum that will provide effective teaching strategies for people on the autism spectrum, as well as their families.

The omnipresent accessibility of the internet is easier now, more than ever, to find what you need with the click of a button. And while the availability of information and resources is extremely valuable, SARRC recognizes there are significant safety risks for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as they navigate a sprawling online community.

“We have learned more and more of the risks associated with online activity and individuals with ASD, who may be especially vulnerable to those risks,” says Paige Raetz, Ph.D., BCBA-D, director of Teen and Adult Services at SARRC.

“Within our own work, we’ve seen firsthand situations where sensitive information is being shared and the potential for our clients to put themselves in unsafe situations.”

With these concerns in mind, Dr. Raetz and her team explored funding opportunities to support the launch of a new online safety curriculum at SARRC. Subsequently, the team secured a two-year grant from NEXT for AUTISM that would allow them to implement a comprehensive online safety program to be embedded within SARRC’s programming. In 2019 — year one of the grant — a discovery phase waS completed where SARRC clinicians participated in trainings and presentations delivered by prominent experts.

“The discovery phase was extremely important in understanding the most prevalent themes and trends leading to threatening or compromising situations within an online space for people with autism, specifically,” says Dr. Raetz. “As we learned more about the data surrounding these implications, we knew remaining vigilant by introducing an online safety curriculum was more critical than ever.”

Examples of potentially compromising situations include, but are not limited to, sharing financial information; depositing money on someone’s behalf; transferring money from account-to-account; searching topics that would lead to a dark web space; or misunderstanding a friendship or relationship, leading to unsafe situations.

“One of the core features of ASD is difficulty within social situations. When you add in the social nuances in an online environment, these social challenges can be magnified, essentially making social interactions even more difficult to interpret,” Dr. Raetz adds.

Phase two, being led by Dr. Raetz and a small team of SARRC clinicians in 2020, is focusing on the development of the curriculum as well as a parent-training manual that will be delivered to families by clinicians. Starting in 2021, the final curriculum will be expanded to SARRC programs and services specific to those that serve teens and adults with autism.

Education, employment, and even social opportunities all utilize and, in many cases, require an online presence, so it’s imperative that those with autism better understand what types of activities to avoid and how to be safe when navigating the online world.

 “My hope is that this curriculum will support individuals and their families in safely navigating within an online community,” says Dr. Raetz. “The online world is not something that can be avoided and advances in technology require individuals to access the web more frequently than ever before.”

A closer look

  • While there is little data to date, research studies have indicated that 30% of the prison population consists of individuals with developmental and/or cognitive disabilities (Bronson, Maruschak, & Berzofsky, 2015).
  • Many experts believe that ASD is underrepresented within that group, suggesting there is a larger group of individuals with ASD in the prison system. Additionally, many anecdotal cases have indicated that online activities have led to first contact with the legal system by local and sometimes federal law enforcement for crimes like money laundering, fraud and child endangerment.]

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