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An Autistic Experience of Social Media

I am writing this one month into my journey of setting up Autistic Realms; I aim to support and develop understanding and awareness about neurodivergence, education and mental health. As a late-identified autistic person and also a parent and teacher, I have always found real-life communication and interaction quite 'difficult' and complex to navigate. I manage it very well for short times, but I mask. I have now realised I masked even more than I knew myself.


Before the birth of social media, I was a prolific writer; I spent as much time writing letters as I spend on social media now (possibly more, as I had no work or family!). Back in the 1990s, social media instantly opened up a new world; I felt connected and free to be myself, with no masking needed (rather unmasked under various profile names). I was on many forums, connecting with people with shared interests from art history, poetry and more alternative groups in my teens and 20s to the more real-life advice and shared experiences in teaching, pregnancy and parenting forums as my life moved on.

Autistic Burnout For autistic people, the effects of socialising and verbally talking for long periods without enough recovery time, especially in group situations, can contribute to autistic burnout. On top of everything else autistic people try and manage to get through each day this can contribute to mental health issues; you need to give yourself time to recover. Social media can relieve a lot of these difficulties, it has its own drawbacks, however, for me the benefits outweigh this.

Social media has always been a big part of my life, recently and especially through the COVID-19 lockdowns; it has provided me with a massive support network of individuals going through similar difficulties with education and mental health. It has allowed me to progress at my own pace and on my terms and is enabling me to recover and feel re-connected again. I feel less anxiety online; I can type and re-type, edit and delete, interact or not interact; it is on my terms both in time and in the content I share. I like being able to hop in and out of various servers, platforms, group chats and direct messages, which is deemed socially acceptable behaviour. In real life, if you don't make eye contact, walk away from a conversation, randomly change topics, or do other tasks simultaneously, it is generally not well received. You are expected to be 'actively listening', which you can do online in your own way without being judged, and it also enables you to trace back and review your interactions.

History of Social Media.

I am now in my 40s, social media wasn't around when I was a child, I logged on in internet cafe's paying for 30 mins sessions at a time. I remember AOL Messenger, 'Friendster' and 'Friends-Re-united' (2002), and 'MySpace' (2003). I spent hundreds of hours absorbed in my wonderful monotropic flow state, creating my pages, chatting on forums and meeting other like-minded people in a virtual world that gave my real life some meaning and a sense of validation. In 2006, Facebook arrived, followed by Twitter and Instagram in 2010. Now, in 2022, I'm beginning to feel at home on various Discord servers alongside my old and familiar forums and Facebook groups.

Monotropic flow state Social media has made it easier for everyone to share information, allowing deep dives into special interests and sharing this joy with others. The online community supports a type of parallel play and enables a monotropic flow state. Being online can be a more predictable and manageable space for autistic people. For many people, the online community also makes it easier to develop and maintain friendships. As a monotropic person, being online naturally aligns with my attention tunnelling. It allows me to smoothly follow links, google searches, research articles, and deep dive into a multi-layered web of connections and immerse myself in deep wells of hyperfocus where time and real life disappear seemingly disappear for moments of time.

Maps and Constellations I see the constellation network of social media visually laid out inside my head as I type, interact and create links and pathways between different platforms and various people I interact with. I happily immerse myself and lose sense of my surroundings, creating connected maps in my head as I go along. In many ways, this is a digital version of the way that I used to research my essays and organise them manually, using post, it notes to cross-reference between various lever arch files and notebooks to try and make sense of a concept or topic before drawing it all together into a neatly typed up essay, printed out on my word processor and saved onto a floppy disk. It is similar to having so many pen-pals as a child, all in different countries and with various interests and conversations. I would be able to choose who and when to respond when I was best able to communicate and in a place where I was able to focus and respond to their writing and share my own stories.

I am fairly new to Twitter and Instagram, and I have found it hard to visualise the structure of my posts/tweets, reposts and what happens when people tag me the same way I can with Facebook and other forums. It is not an ideal space for me; I need to visualise what is happening to process it, like navigating the London Tube system to get to various destinations. I can't grasp what is happening; it is confusing, but I love the network of people I am getting to know and feel a sense of community. Facebook is a bit of a security blanket and safety net; I understand how it works and how to work myself around inside, too. I find it provides me with familiarity and consistency and is fairly reliable to navigate, having my groups where I feel safe to retreat back into when needed.

Follow and Share I am interested in researching and advocating about neurodivergence, education and mental health. If you want to join me in wandering around various social media servers, platforms, instances, or apps, please feel free to follow and share with me.

Website Various Discord servers ...... I am sure there will be more to add or replace in time!

**Article originally published Nov 2022, updated with hyper-links to new website resources in Jan 2024.


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