A young girl plays on an iPad at a wooden table.
13 Dec

Autism and online safety

Regardless of our age, background or whether we’re autistic, most of us spend at least some part of our day on digital devices. There are periods of the year where our screen time tends to increase, such as the holiday season where we might have time off school or work. And although screen time isn’t inherently bad or unsafe, without adequate awareness, we’re more likely to experience its negative effects.

In this post, we’ll discuss how you can prioritise online safety for yourself, your child or even your wider family, ensuring you and the people around you can enjoy time spent online without compromising your health, safety or wellbeing.

  • Establish routines
  • Do a digital literacy check
  • Consider online safety
  • Further resources

Establish routines

Routines help autistic people and their loved ones to thrive in both the short and long term. They’re particularly crucial during times of change or times that are busy, such as the holiday season. By having routines around when, where and how you or your child/young person engages with digital devices, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of time online without developing unhealthy habits.

There are a few things to consider when establishing a routine around screen time:


Having digital devices in our bedrooms can cause our brains to associate these areas with work, entertainment, and activity rather than rest. This can then be detrimental for our sleep, mood and general wellbeing. Try to keep PCs, laptops and phones out of your bedroom, or at least have restrictions on accessing certain apps during the night.

Time of day

Avoid looking at a screen or using a digital device as soon as you wake up and right before you go to sleep. This can impact the quality of your sleep and also increase your anxiety. Instead, you might like to make breakfast or a cup of tea/coffee, go for a walk or spend some time sitting outside.

Length of time

When we have more time to use our digital devices, we can often spend hours scrolling, reading, watching or playing without even realising it. While a bit of screen time each day certainly isn’t harmful, it’s important to have a balance between time spent online and doing other things, particularly exercise and spending time outside.

Experts recommend limiting time spent gaming to no more than two hours per day, particularly for children. If you’re aware that you or your child consistently games for longer than this, try to reduce the time you spend gaming by even as little as ten minutes each day until you reach this two-hour limit.

There are settings built into digital devices that can help reduce screen time. You can click on the links relevant to your device/s to learn how to limit screen time, particularly on apps you want to visit less frequently:

Do a digital literacy check

With digital devices, video games and social media being so prevalent in today’s world, many people assume they’d never fall for an online scam. However, even the best of us can be caught up in scams or cyber-attacks that can leave personal information compromised and cause losses that are sometimes irreparable.

Although many people with autism have a strong understanding of digital security and safety, others on the autism spectrum can be more vulnerable to online scams and cyber-attacks. It’s incredibly important that anyone with access to the online world is given the tools and education they need to protect their identity and personal information.

For someone to be able to access the online world independently, they should have an age-appropriate understanding of the following:

  • Information that is appropriate and inappropriate to post or share online
  • Why banking and online shopping should be avoided on public Wi-Fi
  • How to identify a scam through text, email, message or phone call
  • What to do if they receive a suspicious message but haven’t acted on it
  • What to do if they’ve fallen victim to a scam or attack

 Outside of these situations, there are things you or your family can do to keep your accounts and devices at their most secure:

  • Ensure you/your child’s device/s have the latest software updates, as these ensure your devices have the latest security measures in place. Having automatic updates turned on means you don’t have to remember to update them manually.
  • Backup devices regularly. This can be done automatically, but don’t forget to check them every now and again to ensure they’re being completed properly. Photos, videos, files, contact details and passwords should all be priorities.
  • Set up multi-factor authentication. This provides extra login steps that make your accounts much more secure (e.g., a password and authentication code for login).
  • Set secure passwords or use pass phrases to make your login details difficult to guess.
  • Report text messages, emails, ads and other scams as soon as you see them.
  • Keep up with the latest news around scams and tips for identifying and avoiding them.

Consider online safety

 Unfortunately, the online world can be quite hostile and even unsafe, particularly for people who are autistic. People on the autism spectrum are more likely to experience bullying and harassment online than their neurotypical peers, which can have severe impacts on self-esteem, health and wellbeing.   

Cyberbullying and online harassment

 Bullying, harassment and antisocial behaviour is just as serious as it is in-person. In fact, it can sometimes be more difficult to stop, as perpetrators can create multiple accounts, fake accounts all while remaining anonymous. People can als be bullied and harassed online by people they know.  

Some people on the autism spectrum and their loved ones may be unfamiliar with online bullying. Here is what it can look like:

  • Aggressive, threatening or unkind messages (privately or in group chats/groups)
  • Creating posts that publicly bully or threaten a person
  • Creating posts that publicly spread rumours or misinformation about a person
  • Encouraging people to bully, harass or threaten a person online
  • Harassing someone verbally or via messages in a video game
  • Sharing a person’s messages, images, videos and information without consent (this is sometimes referred to as ‘revenge porn’ in the case of nude photos/videos)
  • Sharing photos or videos of a person being bullied, harassed or attacked online
  • Hacking into a person’s profile and changing it to embarrass them, bully them or threaten their safety
  • Creating a fake profile to trick someone into forming a relationship or sending photos, videos, money or other personal information (catfishing)
  • Creating a fake profile to impersonate someone, harass/bully people or share inappropriate photos, videos or messages
  • Taking nude photos/videos of a person without their consent

Sometimes, people may hide the fact that they are being cyberbullied due to fear, guilt or shame. They might also not have the language or awareness of how to disclose that they are being harassed online. Here are some signs a person might be experiencing cyberbullying:

  • Appears upset during or after using a device or the Internet
  • Avoids conversations about computer or phone activities; is very protective and secretive around their online behaviour
  • Appears nervous or jumpy when they receive a message, text or email
  • Withdraws from school, friends, family members and activities
  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Has angry outburst or ‘acts out’ at home
  • Spends more time than usual on their own, particularly in their room  
  • Suddenly dislikes using a device or wants to stop using it
  • Experiences mood, behaviour, sleep or appetite changes that can’t otherwise be explained

If you are being harassed online, it’s important to tell someone that you trust, such as a family member, friend or colleague. They could address the harassment directly with you or help you find someone who can. It’s also important to create a safe and supportive environment where your child or someone else you know can tell you they are being cyberbullied. Having a space to share thoughts, experiences and emotions without judgement is invaluable for a person’s safety and wellbeing.

There are some immediate measures a person can take if they are being cyberbullied. Parents, carers, loved ones and friends can also assist:

  • Avoid engaging with the perpetrators or retaliating in any way. In a situation involving blackmail, contact the police immediately and do not pay any money or offer any information.
  • Report posts, comments and messages to the relevant social media channel.
  • Block users, profiles or accounts that are instigating or enabling the bullying.
  • Keep evidence of cyberbullying, harassment or illegal activities/mentions of illegal activities. This could be in the form of screenshots, photos or written notes about an incident that has occurred.
  • In the instance where bullying has occurred in a physical place and moved online (e.g., at school, in the workplace), contact relevant individuals to help prevent the bullying from occurring again.
  • Take time to go offline and even move away from your device/s to regulate and access support.

Online friendships

Many autistic people form and maintain virtual friendships, either with people they’ve met in person or people they know exclusively online. These relationships can be hugely meaningful, especially for autistic people, as they allow for social interaction without the pressures of traditional social cues such as eye contact and interpreting body language.

It can also be easier for people with autism to find like-minded people online than in their local area. Building friendships around special interests and/or shared experiences can help us to form long-lasting and positive relationships where we have plenty of things in common.

If online friendships, it might be time to follow the steps mentioned above under ‘Cyberbullying and online harassment’ to protect your safety and wellbeing.

Sometimes ,the opportunity arises for online friends to meet and spend time face-to-face. If you or your child are planning to meet someone in-person for the first time, here are some measures you can take to protect your boundaries and stay safe:

  • Agree to meet in a busy public place, ideally during the daytime (e.g., a café, park, shopping centre).
  • Bring someone along or have someone wait nearby. If no one can come along, tell someone who you’re meeting, where and when you’re meeting them and what they should do if they don’t hear from you.
  • Organise where you’ll go and what you’ll do when you hang out.
  • Have a plan for what to do if things become uncomfortable or unsafe, particularly if you need to leave quickly. Make sure any other people involved are aware of what they need to do or say to help you.
  • Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to say something or leave.You don’t have an obligation to spend time with people who make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, regardless of what they say.

Taking a break

 Sometimes, we might need to take a break from certain accounts, chats, groups or pages, particularly on social media. These accounts don’t have to be abusive, threatening or unsafe; they might just be a bit too overwhelming for us to see on our feeds.

The good news is that you don’t have to unfollow or block someone to see less of their posts. You can refer to the tips below to minimise certain posts or accounts on your feed without unfollowing or blocking someone:

  • Snooze: Temporarily stop seeing a user’s posts for 30 days (Facebook)
  • Hide: Stop seeing all posts from a user or certain ads or articles
  • Mute: Stop receiving message notifications from a person or group chat.
  • Restrict: Move conversations from your chat lists and stop notifying a user when you’re active/online

Further resources

Prioritising online safety for yourself and those around you is important for your overall health and wellbeing, but it can be easier said than done. If you’re looking for further information, resources and support around managing screen time, you can visit the links below:

For external resources around screen time, social media and bullying, you can visit the following websites:

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