University focuses on making the internet safer for autistic children

A Scottish university has launched the UK's first major research study into how to protect children with autism online.

Research also suggests autistic children are higher than average users of technology and social media.
Research also suggests autistic children are higher than average users of technology and social media.

Researchers from Heriot-Watt will use findings from the groundbreaking study to develop tools to protect children on the autism spectrum when they access the internet.

Previous studies have shown children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be more prone to loneliness, peer rejection and poor wellbeing.

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Research also suggests autistic children are higher than average users of technology and social media, which can be a lifeline for social contact. However, there is a lack of evidence into how to protect youngsters online. Initial findings from the study revealed parents of autistic children feared their children were “naive” and lacked skills to protect them from a range of pitfalls.

Dr Tessa Berg, an assistant professor in computer science from Heriot-Watt, said: “Research has found that using the net can provide children with autism with a much-needed lifeline to help them socialise.

“However, the pitfalls can include making unauthorised purchases, viewing unsuitable materials or falling victim to phishing emails.”

Kirsty Macmillan, a Heriot-Watt PhD student who is leading the study, said: “Parental controls and restricting internet access can potentially cut off social ties that young people have online, which for many young people on the autism spectrum is their preferred way of contacting people.

“Once we know more about the risks autistic children face, we will develop software interventions that will notify the child when they have clicked on an unsafe link. These tools will be designed to help all children to enjoy the internet safely and we hope will give both parents and children additional protection and reassurance when it comes to online use.”

Charities have warned children with autism and learning disabilities are at increased risk of exploitation and have called for new tools to help plug gaps in safeguarding.

Mike Penny, chief executive of Lothian Autistic Society, said: “We welcome this research that will tackle some of the challenges that children and young people on the autism spectrum face online. People with autism can experience difficulties with language, communication and social interaction. Children and young people with autism tend to take things literally and at face value, which can make them easy targets for bullying online and hackers who try to do harm.”

Stuart Allardyce, national manager of child protection charity Stop it Now! Scotland, said: “Children with autistic spectrum disorders can be vulnerable for all kinds of reasons. They may assume that because something is on the internet it is OK or because an adult asks them to do something online it must be all right. They may have difficulty understanding other people’s intentions or motivations.”