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Mr. Internet: Teens on the Spectrum and Online, a guest post by Lyn Miller-Lachmann


My novel Rogueportrays a young teenager on the autism spectrum who has come to rely almost exclusively on “Mr. Internet” to learn about the world, especially after she gets suspended from school for attacking a bully. Through Mr. Internet, Kiara has diagnosed herself with Asperger’s syndrome, learned how to fix her brother’s bicycle, and found out that the neighbor boy who she thought was her friend may only be using her for his parents’ drug operation. In her online searches, she has discovered some useful information, some information that may or may not be true, and some information that she’s ill equipped to handle.
Like much of Rogue, Kiara’s online activities are drawn from my own experience as someone diagnosed with Asperger’s. Children (and adults) on the autism spectrum are often drawn to the computer and to seeking information online. I know this process firsthand, because even though I have a Masters in Library Science, I would prefer to stay in my own home, where I feel comfortable, rather than go to the library and try to explain my information needs to a stranger. At the same time, I enjoy looking up information for others and will persist in finding answers with reliable sources to back them up long after most people would have quit or settled for half an answer.

This past June at the ALA conference in Chicago I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Lesley Farmer, the foremost authority on Internet citizenship for young people on the autism spectrum. She had a table at the Diversity Fair, and we talked about the promise and the perils of the Internet for tweens and teens with autism. While we spoke about the dangers, specifically of young people being taken advantage of by scammers and predators, she also emphasized the Internet as a place where those young people can gain self-confidence as well as knowledge and become leaders among their peers.
Leaders? Maybe she was going a little too far with her optimism.
While I know that information-seeking online offers comfort and solitude, I expressed my concern that we can become too comfortable—thus further isolating ourselves. My nephew, who has also been diagnosed with Asperger’s, spends entire days alone in front of the computer, keeping up with relatives and fellow hobbyists through email and Facebook. I know I would do the same thing, if I didn’t have other responsibilities. Time spent in front of the computer is time away from other people, and no matter how much one reads advice online (as Kiara says, “when I go upstairs to ask [Mr. Internet] how kids with Asperger’s syndrome can find friends, he has 255,000 answers for me”), hard-won social skills wither in isolation.
Aware of these concerns, Farmer advises librarians and others who work with young people on the spectrum not only to teach them the principles of “digital citizenship” but to prepare them to teach others. She argues that young people with autism spectrum disorders can become model digital citizens because of their comfort with machines and technology, their attention to detail and rules, and their sense of what’s fair. Once children and teens with autism have a clear understanding of rules, safe practices, and the need to examine information critically, they can teach others those same rules, practices, and processes of critical thinking. In teaching, knowledge is reinforced as social skills develop. 
Farmer suggests using simulations and role playing to teach digital citizenship and to rehearse ways the young person can in turn teach peers. Some of this is already being done with great success. For instance, young writers on the autism spectrum have found an outlet in the online site Figment not only for their stories but also for using their technology skills to help others. Around the time I met Lesley Farmer, I also received this inspiring email from Figment co-founder Nicole Valentine, describing the day the staff invited the site’s most active users to a workshop in New York City:
Well, one mom kept sneaking over to the door to spy on her teenage daughter. I thought it was a classic case of helicopter parenting, but then I noticed how emotional the mom was getting. I asked her if everything was okay. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said her daughter had Aspergers and she had never seen her hold court like this before. I peeked in with her and indeed, her daughter was THE mayor of Figment. I said, “you know, she’s our most popular user. She has hundreds of followers and is really active on our message board.”
She told me she had never seen her daughter say more than three words to anyone in a group situation. We both stood there for a moment watching this girl lead a discussion about how to improve the site. I stood there and I cried along with her mom. It was my single best day on the job. We won an LATimes Book Award and I got to go to that ceremony and accept the award, even that didn’t beat that day. It was the day I knew my work was changing kids lives.
If you would like to help young people on the autism spectrum use the Internet more effectively, become good digital citizens, and become leaders among their peers, here are some resources:
Lesley Farmer has a wiki resource on Digital Citizenship at: http://k12digitalcitizenship.wikispaces.com/. Her book, Library Services for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders, will be published by ALA editions this fall.
For more information about the teen book discussion and writing site Figment, visit www.figment.com.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the former editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and the author of resources for educators and fiction for teens. Her young adult novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press, 2009), about a teenage refugee from Chile coming to terms with his father’s imprisonment and torture under the Pinochet dictatorship, was a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and received an Américas Award Honorable Mention from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. Her most recent novel is Rogue (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection. When she isn’t writing fiction, Lyn is the co-host of a bilingual program of Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history on WRPI-FM, a blogger, and a Lego builder. She reviews children’s and young adult books on social justice themes for The Pirate Tree (www.thepiratetree.com). For more information and cool Lego pictures, visit Lyn’s website, www.lynmillerlachmann.com.

Comments

  1. Thank you for inviting me to be part of Teen Librarian's Toolbox. I'm happy to answer any questions or link folks up with other resources.

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