Abstract

An online survey compared the perceived benefits and preferred functions of computer-mediated communication of participants with (N  =  291) and without ASD (N  =  311). Participants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) perceived benefits of computer-mediated communication in terms of increased comprehension and control over communication, access to similar others, and the opportunity to express their true selves. They enjoyed using the Internet to meet others more, and to maintain connections with friends and family less, than did participants without ASD. People with ASD enjoyed aspects of computer-mediated communication that may be associated with special interests or advocacy, such as blogging, more than did participants without ASD. This study suggests that people with ASD may use the Internet in qualitatively different ways from those without ASD. Suggestions for interventions are discussed.

Computers offer many opportunities to adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and are structured in a way that may appeal to and uniquely benefit them. The Internet has been described as a “newly autism-compatible environment” (Murray & Lesser, 1999) with the potential to alter the lives of people on the autism spectrum in a way comparable to the effects of the spread of sign language on the Deaf community (Singer, 1999). Soon after the inception of the Internet, researchers have proposed commonalities between its structure and the processing style of people with ASD. For example, Blume (1997) stated, “The mental processes of autistics can stand in as symbols of the associative hyper-linking graphic chaos of the World Wide Web (p. 7).” Indeed, Temple Grandin (2009; an ASD expert who has ASD) likewise reported that her mind operates much like an Internet search engine. Though her experience is not representative of the experiences of everyone with ASD, computer-based information is organized according to predictable rules that may be well matched to the systematic (related to predictable and rule-based systems of knowledge) processing styles of people with ASD (Baron-Cohen, Richler, Bisarya, Gurunathan, & Wheelwright, 2003; Murray & Lesser, 1999).

Moreover, computers provide opportunities for people with ASD to engage with others who share their interests. People with ASD often have specific, focused interests and frequently excel in domains related to these special interests (Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, Ashwin, Tavassoli, & Chakrabarti, 2009). The special interests of people with ASD are often more systematic than the special interests of people without ASD (Baron-Cohen et al., 2009; Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012). The Internet may support people with ASD in exploring these special interests (Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012). Indeed, people with ASD may be drawn to interest-based online forums, such as discussion boards and blogs, although the degree to which they enjoy such forums relative to individuals without ASD has not previously been assessed (Benford, 2008).

In addition, the Internet may help people with ASD to overcome some of the social challenges they face offline and even to learn about alternative conceptions of autism (Benford, 2008; Jordan, 2010). Indeed, the Internet may be one of the primary ways that people with ASD learn about and participate in the neurodiversity—or autism rights—movement, which views autism as a unique and valuable aspect of human diversity and attempts to empower “autistic people” to challenge limiting societal conceptions of autism (Bagatell, 2010; Jordan, 2010; Kapp, Gillespie-Lynch, Sherman, & Hutman, 2013).

The current study was designed to evaluate whether computer-mediated communication (CMC), or the use of the Internet to interact with others, provides unique benefits to people with ASD relative to those without ASD. Insights about which aspects of CMC are perceived to be particularly beneficial by people with ASD could inform services for individuals with ASD. To provide suggestions about the types of Internet-based activities and services that are likely to be beneficial for people with ASD, we also assessed the degree to which participants enjoyed participating in different types of computer-mediated communication, as well as nonsocial online activities.

Is Computer-Mediated Communication Beneficial for People With ASD?

People with ASD may benefit from computer-mediated communication in qualitatively different ways from their counterparts without ASD. Individuals with ASD find computer-based instruction enjoyable and motivating (e.g., Moore & Calvert, 2001), and parents often describe their children with ASD as particularly skilled with computers (Putnam & Chong, 2008). This may be because computers provide consistent, rule-based environments wherein the pace of activities can be adapted to suit the preferences of the individual (Swettenham, 1996). For example, the asynchrony of many types of computer-mediated communication may provide increased comprehension and control over communication by allowing time to consider others' responses and edit one's own, reducing demands to wait for another person to finish in order to speak/type, and conferring the ability to choose when one is available (Benford & Standen, 2009; Burke et al., 2010). More generally, the number of communicative channels that individuals must attend to at a given time is often reduced online (Jones & Meldal, 2001; Murray, 1997). Computers may thus reduce the discomfort and anxiety that many people with ASD feel when engaging in face-to-face interaction by allowing them to interact from the safety of a familiar place (Bagatell, 2010). Some people with ASD may prefer to communicate online because they feel more comfortable writing than speaking.

People with ASD are often socially isolated (Howlin, Goode, Hutton, & Rutter, 2004; Müller, Schuler, & Yates, 2008) and may thus have particular interest in meeting similar others online, especially those who share their special interests (Jordan, 2010; Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012). People with less social support more generally use the Internet to meet new people (Bessière, Kiesler, Kraut, & Bonev, 2008). Similarly, people with ASD report that computer-mediated communication helps them interact with others (Benford & Standen, 2009; Jones & Meldal, 2001; Müller et al., 2008). Computers may appeal to people with ASD by building on their strengths and helping them cope with some of the social and nonsocial difficulties that can make offline social interactions challenging, such as difficulties interpreting nonverbal cues (Müller et al., 2008), challenges with emotion regulation (Chamak, Bonniau, Jaunay, & Cohen, 2008), and unusual perceptual experiences, including atypical perceptions of time and difficulty integrating information across modalities (Chamak et al., 2008; Jones, Quigney, & Huws, 2003).

The social benefits of computer-mediated communication for people with ASD can be broadly classified along two dimensions: (a) increased comprehension of and control over communication (Benford & Standen, 2009; Burke et al., 2010; Müller et al., 2008) and (b) contact with and social support from similar others who may be geographically distant (Davidson, 2008; Jones & Meldal, 2001; Jordan, 2010). Despite the potential benefits of computer-mediated communication for people with ASD, it also presents challenges.

Does Computer-Mediated Communication Have Drawbacks for People With ASD?

Although people with ASD report that the relative permanence of online communications is useful for clearing up miscommunications, they also see it as a potential source of vulnerability (Benford & Standen, 2009). Although the relative absence of nonverbal cues online can enhance both comprehension and control over interactions, some people with ASD miss the immediate feedback and information about emotions that nonverbal cues provide (Benford & Standen, 2009; Burke et al., 2010).

Although previous research suggests that computer-mediated communication may provide opportunities for people with ASD to compensate for some of the social difficulties they face, it is not clear if people with ASD use the Internet for social purposes as much as people without ASD do. According to parent reports, children and adolescents with ASD may spend less time engaged in social uses of the Internet (e-mail, Facebook, or texting), and more time in relatively nonsocial activities, such as video games, relative to their typically developing siblings and people with other disabilities (Mazurek, Shattuck, Wagner, & Cooper, 2012; Mazurek, & Wenstrup, 2012). In contrast, the majority of adults with ASD in a study without a control group reported that they used social network sites, which they primarily used to connect socially (Mazurek, 2013). Because the latter study lacked a comparison group, it is unclear if participants with ASD used social network sites to connect socially as much as people without ASD typically do. Differences in the degree of social use of the Internet between studies may be attributable to the fact that only Mazurek and Wenstrup (2012) focused on group comparisons between people with ASD and typically developing youth, developmental changes between adolescence and adulthood, differences in parent and self-report, or other factors.

Aims of the Current Study

Despite substantial evidence that computer-mediated communication provides communicative benefits to people with ASD, no previous study has examined whether individuals with ASD experience more communicative benefits of computer-mediated communication relative to people without ASD. A primary aim of the current study is to determine if computer-mediated communication provides qualitatively different communicative benefits to adults with ASD. To provide greater insights into the functions for which adults with ASD use the Internet, the current study compares the degree to which adults with and without ASD enjoy using the Internet for a range of social and nonsocial functions.

Hypotheses of the Current Study

  1. Participants with ASD would perceive more communicative benefits of computer-mediated communication relative to participants without ASD in terms of comprehension and control over communication (i.e., time to think, opportunities to practice interaction, and choice of how one is perceived) and contact with similar others (i.e., opportunities to find people like oneself).

  2. Participants with ASD would use the Internet for nonsocial purposes and to share expertise related to special interests (hobbies) more than participants without ASD.

  3. Participants with ASD would use the Internet to initiate contact with others (particularly who have similar interests or are otherwise like them) more and to maintain contact with others (e.g., family and friends) less than participants without ASD.

Method

Participants

Recruitment

The current study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of California, Los Angeles. Recruitment was approved for participants age 7 years or older. Recruitment of minors was permitted because this study was considered low-risk due to the type of questions asked and the fact that respondents remained anonymous. An online survey was posted on SurveyMonkey. Invitations to participate in the study were posted on ASD- and disability-related forums, Facebook and Myspace groups, blogs, listservs, and advocacy and support groups, as well as Craigslist. Invitations were also distributed to vocational rehabilitation centers, university disability offices, secondary schools, and a disability youth advisory board. The researchers, one of whom is a self-advocate, also recruited participants from their own social networks and asked their contacts to redistribute the survey invitation. Efforts were made to recruit participants from numerous and diverse sources. Before beginning the survey, participants provided informed consent online. No compensation was provided for participation.

Participant characteristics

The 657 participants who completed the survey ranged in age from 8 to 84 years, with a mean age of 32.5 years. Because of concerns about the reliability of responses from minors, analyses focus on participants 18 years of age or older (N  =  602). The same pattern of results, however, was obtained when minors were included in analyses. Minors (N  =  49) and six participants who did not report their age were excluded from analyses and will not be discussed further. More participants were female (71.6%), regardless of diagnosis; 23.4% were male; and 3.5% identified as transgender or intersex. The majority of participants were Caucasian (79.1%), and few participants identified as Hispanic (4.8%), Asian (2.7%), of African descent (1.8%), Pacific Islander (.3%), and of mixed ethnicity (5.8%). Percentages do not add up to 100% because some participants did not report their gender or ethnicity. Education ranged from “none” to “postdoctoral training,” with a mean of 15.96 years (see Table 1). Participants in the current study also participated in a study examining sociopolitical views on ASD (Kapp et al., 2013).

Table 1

Participant Characteristics: Mean (SE)

Participant Characteristics: Mean (SE)
Participant Characteristics: Mean (SE)

Measures

Measures used in the current study included a Demographic Survey, the Autism Spectrum Quotient used to assess autistic traits, and an Online Survey of Internet Preferences and Socialization to examine Internet preferences and offline socialization.

Demographic survey questions

Participants were asked whether they considered themselves to be on the autism spectrum; whether they had been diagnosed by a professional; and their gender, age, highest level of education, and ethnicity. Participants were also asked if they were answering the survey by themselves.

Autism Spectrum Quotient

The Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) is a 50-item self-report measure that assesses the number of ASD symptoms an individual exhibits on a continuum that extends into the general population (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Martin, & Clubley, 2001). The AQ includes five subscales that include Social Skill, Attention Switching, Attention to Detail, Communication, and Imagination. In a validation study with a large sample of participants with and without ASD, internal consistency for the subscales was moderate, ranging from .63 to .77 (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). Test-retest reliability was also satisfactory (r  =  .70). The validation study suggested that people with ASD often receive a score of 32 or above on the AQ, whereas people without ASD typically average below 20 on the measure (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001).

Online Survey of Internet Preferences and Socialization

Survey construction

The survey of Internet preferences and socialization described in this manuscript was adapted from a survey developed by Benford (2008) and reported in her mixed-methods dissertation. We expanded the range of answer choices and preferred functions of Internet use to reflect changes in technology (i.e., Social Network Sites were not included in her survey). Though Benford's survey did not assess perceived communicative benefits of the Internet, she provided qualitative examples of communicative benefits of the Internet from interviews with a subset of the individuals with ASD who participated in her study. We used her qualitative data to guide us in constructing a scale to assess communicative benefits of the Internet.

We piloted our survey during lab meetings. Additionally, approximately 20 of the first participants to complete the online survey served as pilot participants (who were not included in analyses) because they provided feedback that caused us to modify questions in order to make them clearer. Each question on our survey provided an option to indicate how the question could be improved: “Is there anything you think is missing from this question?” One anonymous pilot participant on the autism spectrum provided extensive feedback that we used to make our survey clearer and more complete. For example, the participant suggested that we include a question about whether the Internet does in fact provide communicative benefits among the questions we had developed to evaluate potential communicative benefits of the Internet.

Internet use and offline socialization

Participants were asked how many hours a week they used the Internet and how many hours they spent in social activities not on the Internet.

Communicative benefits of the Internet

Participants were asked to indicate if and how the Internet helps them communicate. Examples of potential benefits included: “Lets you express your true self” and “Gives you time to think before responding.” See  Appendix A for a complete list of questions. Participants were also asked whether the Internet helped them to communicate. Answer choices ranged from “I strongly disagree” to “I strongly agree” on a 5-point Likert scale.

Preferred functions of the Internet

Participants were asked how much they liked to use the Internet to do various things. Examples included: “Use social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace,” “Stay close to family,” “Stay close to friends,” “Write a blog,” “Be part of a discussion group about people like you.” See  Appendix B for a complete list of questions. Answer choices ranged from “I really don't like it” to “I really like it” on a 5-point Likert scale.

Analysis Approach

One-way analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were conducted to compare the demographic characteristics and self-reported autism symptoms (as assessed by the AQ) of participants who stated that they were on the autism spectrum and had a clinical diagnosis, participants who reported that they were on the autism spectrum but did not have a clinical diagnosis, and those who did not identify as autistic (see Table 1). These analyses revealed heightened autism symptoms among participants who self-identified as autistic relative to participants who did not identify as autistic and no significant differences in autism symptoms between participants with ASD who did or did not report having a clinical diagnosis. Given that autism symptoms did not differ between participants with ASD who did and did not have a clinical diagnosis, we grouped these participants into a single ASD group to compare to participants without ASD in all subsequent analyses. Table 2 shows the results of independent samples t-tests comparing the characteristics of participants with ASD (irrespective of diagnosis) to characteristics of participants without ASD.

Table 2

Comparisons of Characteristics of Participants With and Without ASD (Irrespective of Clinical Diagnosis): Mean (SE)

Comparisons of Characteristics of Participants With and Without ASD (Irrespective of Clinical Diagnosis): Mean (SE)
Comparisons of Characteristics of Participants With and Without ASD (Irrespective of Clinical Diagnosis): Mean (SE)

Nonparametric Mann-Whitney U analyses were used to compare the communicative benefits and preferred functions of computer-mediated communication for participants who self-identified as being on the autism spectrum (irrespective of clinical diagnosis) to participants who self-identified as nonautistic. The use of nonparametric tests is highly recommended for ordinal data such as the response scales employed in the current study (Jamieson, 2004). Because a few participants elected not to answer certain questions, Ns are reported separately for each set of questions. Because of the large number of analyses conducted and the resultant threat of Type 1 errors, only p values equal to or less than .001 were considered statistically significant. Data were analyzed using SPSS Statistics version 20.

Results

Differences Between Participants With and Without ASD

Participants who self-identified as on the autism spectrum had higher ASD symptoms as assessed with the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) than those who did not (see Table 2). No significant differences in ASD traits were apparent between participants who self-identified as having ASD who had or had not received formal diagnoses. However, diagnosed participants reported fewer years of education than participants without ASD. Regardless of diagnosis, participants with ASD spent less time in offline social activities than those without ASD.

Communicative Benefits of the Internet

Relative to adults without ASD, adults with ASD were less likely to report that the Internet does not help them communicate. Table 3 shows mean ranks for adults with and without ASD.

Table 3

Perceived Benefits of Computer-Mediated Communication: Mean Ranks

Perceived Benefits of Computer-Mediated Communication: Mean Ranks
Perceived Benefits of Computer-Mediated Communication: Mean Ranks

Consistent with the hypothesis, computer-mediated communication provided benefits associated with increased comprehension and control of interaction for adults with ASD relative to those without ASD: increased time to think and practice interacting. Also consistent with the hypothesis, computer-mediated communication provided more benefits associated with contact with similar others to adults with ASD than their counterparts: access to similar others and choice of co-interactants.

Contrary to expectations, the opportunity to control how people see you, the opportunity to hide one's emotions online, and the opportunity to pretend to be different from who you are were not perceived as benefits of computer-mediated communication by people with ASD in particular. Instead, the opportunity to express one's true self was perceived as more of a benefit by people with ASD relative to those without ASD. The textual, but not pictorial, basis of many forms of computer-mediated communication was more beneficial for those with ASD than their counterparts.

Preferred Functions of the Internet

Adults with ASD liked to use the Internet more to meet people with the same interests and to meet people like them than those without ASD (see Table 4). Participants with ASD enjoyed using the Internet to stay close to family and friends less than those without ASD. Participants with ASD also enjoyed using the Internet to access social network sites less than participants without ASD. Consistent with the hypothesis, participants without ASD liked to use the Internet to maintain pre-existing relationships (to stay close to friends and family), whereas participants with ASD enjoyed using the Internet to meet new people (who were similar to them or had similar interests).

Table 4

Preference of Internet Functions: Mean Ranks

Preference of Internet Functions: Mean Ranks
Preference of Internet Functions: Mean Ranks

Adults with ASD enjoyed using the Internet to share interests more than those without ASD: They exhibited greater enjoyment of sharing their expertise, being part of discussion groups about their interests and identities, and writing blogs relative to participants without ASD. Participants with ASD exhibited a trend toward using the Internet more to learn about hobbies, to find a boyfriend or girlfriend and to buy things relative to those without ASD. Adults with ASD exhibited a trend toward using the Internet less to learn about work or school relative to adults without ASD.

Although participants with ASD enjoyed used the Internet for the relatively nonsocial purpose of playing video games more than individuals without ASD, participants with ASD enjoyed using the Internet less for the nonsocial purpose of reading the news.

Discussion

Benefits

Adults with ASD perceived multiple benefits of computer-mediated communication relative to adults without ASD in terms of comprehension and control over communication (i.e., time to think and opportunities to practice interaction) and contact with similar others (i.e., opportunities to find people like oneself and choice in with whom one interacts). These findings extend previous work using firsthand accounts by people with ASD to examine benefits of computer-mediated communication (Benford, 2008; Benford & Standen, 2009; Burke et al., 2010; Davidson, 2008; Jones & Meldal, 2001; Jordan, 2010; Müller et al., 2008) by demonstrating that people with ASD perceive qualitatively different benefits of computer-mediated communication relative to people without ASD.

Participants with ASD did not perceive unique benefits of a certain type of control afforded by online communication, namely hiding aspects of one's self online. Instead, they found the opportunity to express one's true self online more beneficial than participants without ASD felt it to be. Just as people with ASD are often honest offline (Baron-Cohen, 2008), they may be more honest online. Shy people also often feel that they can express their true selves online (Sheeks & Birchmeier, 2007).

Access to an autistic culture, or online sites such as Wrong Planet where alternative communicative norms to those encountered in neurotypical interactions are encouraged (Davidson, 2008; Jordan, 2010), may provide adults with ASD with the sense that they can express themselves better online. Indeed, contact with similar others online may allow people with ASD to reveal themselves as autistic online and express aspects of themselves that they may try to conceal to appear more normal in other contexts (e.g., Davidson & Henderson, 2010). Access to Internet-based groups may also provide opportunities for people with ASD to practice social interaction (Burke et al., 2010).

Consistent with their reports of benefits of the opportunity to practice social interaction and engage with similar others online, participants with ASD reported that the Internet helped them meet people and enjoyed using it to form connections more, and to maintain connections less, than people without ASD. These findings may align with a broader pattern of benefits of computer-mediated communication for people with a range of social difficulties rather than being specific to people with ASD. People with limited social support, a category that describes many adults with ASD (Howlin et al., 2004; Müller et al., 2008), may use the Internet to find people to engage with (Bessière et al., 2008).

Differences in the preferred functions for which participants with and without ASD use the Internet suggest that offline difficulties with social interaction associated with ASD may also be apparent online despite perceived benefits of computer-mediated communications in terms of access to similar others and control over communication. Participants with ASD in the current study likely experienced offline social difficulties. Indeed, they socialized offline less than their counterparts (see Table 2).

Although computer-mediated communication may help people with ASD initiate social interactions, maintaining online relationships may be more problematic (Burke et al., 2010). The delay in feedback and reduced information about emotional cues online are likely areas that might contribute to social difficulties online (Benford & Standen, 2009; Burke et al., 2010). Though some people with ASD report that the Internet makes them less lonely by increasing offline contact, others feel that friends made online are not as close as those made offline (Benford, 2008). Some find that a paucity of offline friends limits the number of friends they can communicate with online (Burke et al., 2010).

The current study found that people with ASD enjoyed social network sites less than people without ASD. Social network sites often recapitulate offline social networks (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). Thus, people with fewer offline friends may face challenges connecting with people on social network sites. People without ASD may spend the majority of their time on social network sites observing others' communication, rather than communicating (Pempek, Yermolayeva, & Calvert, 2009). People with ASD may find browsing others' profiles unmotivating (Bahiss, Cunningham, & Smith, 2010), although some adults with ASD browse others' sites to identify shared interests on which to base social initiations (Burke et al., 2010).

In contrast, participants with ASD enjoyed communicating through discussion boards and blogs more than their counterparts. Older forms of computer-mediated communication, like discussion boards and blogs, differ from social network sites in that they are organized primarily around information rather than social connections (Boyd & Ellison, 2008). People with ASD may enjoy these forms of computer-mediated communication because they are asynchronous, text-based, efficient, and interest based (Benford, 2008).

Indeed, many of the functions that adults with ASD enjoyed more than their counterparts could be related to focused interests (e.g., enjoyment of blogs, discussion boards, opportunities to share expertise about hobbies, and even playing video games). Evidence that adults on the spectrum enjoy some nonsocial aspects of the Internet more than adults without ASD (e.g., video games) and other nonsocial functions of the Internet less than their counterparts (e.g., reading the news) may be related to the type of nonsocial interest each represents. The news typically consists of information about popular topics that receive extensive coverage and thus may appeal less to some individuals with ASD than topics more directly related to their own more focused interests. Indeed, people with ASD may exhibit a tendency toward independent thinking, in contrast to the typical social conformity (Yafai, Verrier, & Reidy, 2013), which may contribute to reduced interest in the type of stories that dominate the news.

The current findings, in conjunction with previous research demonstrating that children and adolescents with ASD used the Internet for nonsocial purposes more than those without ASD (Mazurek & Wenstrup, 2013), suggest that additional research with participants with and without ASD at different stages of development is needed to clarify when and how people with ASD differ in the degree to which they use the Internet for social purposes. The majority of the current research examining predictors of media use among people with ASD does not include comparison groups (Benford, 2008; Burke et al., 2010; Kuo, Orsmond, Coster, & Cohn, 2013; Mazurek, 2013; Mineo, Ziegler, Gill, & Salkin, 2009).

Limitations

There are several limitations of this study. Despite piloting with participants with ASD, respondents indicated that the wording of some items was confusing. Asking about enjoyment of computer-mediated communication conflates frequency of use and emotion. An active record of how often people use each type of computer-mediated communication would yield more precise measures of use than a self-report measure.

Participants who self-selected to complete a long uncompensated survey may not be representative of the broader population of people with ASD. Indeed, it was impossible to verify ASD diagnoses or characterize severity of ASD in the anonymous online sample in the current study. Thirty percent of those who reported being on the autism spectrum in the current study did not report having an official diagnosis of ASD. Similarly, research examining special interests among users of an online forum for people with ASD (WrongPlanet.net) reported that 35% to 41% of participants had not received a formal diagnosis (Caldwell-Harris & Jordan, 2014; Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012). The large number of participants who feel that they have ASD but lack a formal diagnosis who participate in ASD studies conducted online may arise at least partially because people use information on the Internet to diagnose themselves as having ASD (Jordan, 2010). Despite evidence that self-diagnosis occurs, research to date has neither examined the validity of self-diagnoses nor the factors that encourage people who believe that they have ASD to not seek out professional diagnosis. Although the high prevalence of people who self-identify as autistic but have not been diagnosed in online samples suggests that they may be overrepresented in online studies, general population screenings indicate that ASD may be underdiagnosed (Brugha et al., 2011; Kim et al., 2011).

The disproportionately high number of females who participated in this study limits the generalizability of results. Although ASD is much more commonly diagnosed among males, females may often go undiagnosed (Kim et al., 2011). The gender ratio may be more representative of people with ASD online, given high proportions of women in other research on adults with ASD who were recruited through the Internet (Gilmour, Schalomon, & Smith, 2012; Sciutto, Richwine, Mentrikoski, & Niedzwiecki, 2012). Indeed, previous research using an online discussion forum to examine the special interests of people with ASD had a higher rate of females with ASD than is typically reported in the research literature: between 43% and 50% (Caldwell-Harris & Jordan, 2014; Jordan & Caldwell-Harris, 2012). The current study and previous research (e.g., Jackson, Ervin, Gardner, & Schmitt, 2001) converge in suggesting that females may enjoy using the Internet to communicate more than males do.

Whereas Internet-based surveys may yield comparable results to more traditional recruitment methods (Gosling, Vazire, Srivastava, & John, 2004), ideally recruitment should be conducted both online and offline to capture the communicative preferences of less (highly) educated people. Participation in online surveys may also be limited by literacy, sensorimotor challenges, and additional factors that reduce access to computers with reliable Internet connections (such as poverty, geographic location, and the absence of community resources, such as public libraries or social service agencies).

In addition, because of the use of an online survey, the researchers were unable to verify that participants with ASD actually filled out the surveys. Parents or caregivers may have filled out or assisted in filling out the online survey. Only 19 participants, however, reported that they were not answering the survey by themselves.

Conclusions and Future Directions

Participants in the current study found computer-mediated communication more helpful than those without ASD did. These findings suggest that services for adults with ASD should include opportunities for computer-mediated communication. The current study extends previous research by demonstrating that adults with ASD perceive many aspects of computer-mediated communication to be more beneficial than those without ASD do. Specifically, asynchronous communication, opportunities to meet similar others and to practice interaction, and text-based communication may be desirable aspects of computer-mediated communication for many people with ASD (Benford, 2008; Burke et al., 2010; Davidson, 2008; Jones & Meldal, 2001; Jordan, 2010). Given that discussion boards and blogs were perceived as particularly appealing by participants with ASD, computer-based platforms for people with ASD should be modeled after discussion boards and blogs by providing opportunities to engage with a wide audience around a topic of mutual interest in an asynchronous manner. Although social network sites like Facebook and MySpace were less appealing for adults with ASD than their counterparts in the current study, future research should explore the potential of different types of social network sites for supporting the social development of people with ASD because some participants in the current study reported that social network sites that are organized more around interests, such as LiveJournal, may appeal more to people with ASD.

Importantly, choice over who one interacts with online was perceived as more of a benefit by adults with ASD relative to those without ASD. Thus, computer-based interventions for people with ASD should provide choices in terms of both the modality of instruction and the people one is interacting with online. Virtual reality interventions may be particularly well suited to providing many of the aspects of computer-mediated communication that people with ASD viewed as uniquely beneficial in the current study in that these interventions can flexibly be adapted to the needs of a given individual while providing relatively realistic opportunities to practice social interaction. Indeed, new research suggests that virtual reality interventions may be particularly promising as computer-mediated supports for the social development of people with ASD. These virtual reality interventions have been used to support collaboration between nonverbal children with ASD (Holt, & Yuill, 2014), social skills among rural adolescents (Stichter, Laffey, Galyen, & Herzog, 2014) and adults with ASD (Kandalaft, Didehbani, Krawczyk, Allen, & Chapman, 2013), and interview skills among adults with ASD (Smith et al., 2014). Evaluation of computer-mediated interventions for people with ASD should include assessments similar to those in the current study, but more focused on the specific intervention being assessed, to integrate people with ASD into the design and evaluation of interventions for them.

The current study found that adults with and without ASD use the Internet in qualitatively different ways; future research should deepen understanding of these differences. Future studies should extend on our finding that participants with ASD perceived computer-mediated communication as more helpful than their counterparts without ASD by examining objective benefits (e.g., the frequency with which different types of Internet use yields opportunities for employment, friendships, community integration, or improved coping strategies) and objective drawbacks (e.g., compulsive Internet use or harassment online) of computer-mediated comparison for people with ASD. To develop services to help people with ASD who would benefit from guidance in navigating online environments, future research should also examine effective strategies people with ASD use online to compensate for a paucity of offline social interactions and the types of behaviors some people with ASD may exhibit online that are associated with social exclusion. Given suggestions that computer-mediated communication is well aligned with the processing style of people with ASD (i.e., Grandin, 2009; Swettenham, 1996), the degree to which computer-mediated communication is beneficial for people with ASD in particular (relative to people with other types of social challenges) remains a key question for future research.

Acknowledgments

We thank the participants of this study and people who helped with recruitment. We are grateful to Patricia M. Greenfield and her lab, especially Yalda T. Uhls for her opportune introduction, for generous advice on the survey and the article.

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Appendix A

Communicative Benefits of the Internet

“The Internet helps you communicate because of which of the following:”

  • (1) The Internet does not help you communicate

  • (2) It lets you express your true self

  • (3) It allows you to practice social interaction

  • (4) It gives you time to think before responding

  • (5) It lets you choose how people see you

  • (6) People cannot tell how you really feel

  • (7) You can pretend you're different than you are

  • (8) It lets you choose who you talk to

  • (9) It helps you find people like you

  • (10) Things are written down

  • (11) Things are shown in pictures

Responses were quantified from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Appendix B

Preferred Functions of Internet Use

“How much do you like to use the Internet to do the following things?”

  • (1) Use social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace

  • (2) Stay close to family

  • (3) Stay close to friends

  • (4) Learn about an interest unrelated to your job or school

  • (5) Learn about something related to your job or school

  • (6) Read news

  • (7) Buy things

  • (8) Play video games

  • (9) Write a blog

  • (10) Share your expertise with others

  • (11) Be part of a discussion group about interests

  • (12) Be part of a discussion group about people like you

  • (13) Meet people with the same interests as you

  • (14) Meet people like you

  • (15) Look for a girlfriend or boyfriend

Responses were quantified from 1 (really don't like it) to 5 (really like it).

Author notes

Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, City University of New York; Steven K. Kapp, University of California, Los Angeles; Christina Shane-Simpson, City University of New York; David Shane Smith; and Ted Hutman, University of California, Los Angeles.