Teen Aspies: Sometimes it’s better NOT to be yourself

“You’re really cute. Do you like sex? I like sex but I have not had any sex in six months. Would you like to be my girlfriend and have sex with me?”

This is an actual email I received from a male member of a co-ed Asperger’s Support Group on Facebook. My profile says married. I do not flirt online. When I do privately email a male aspie if they are in crisis, I always mention my husband and my family. I never imply that I am single or looking. This does not deter them.

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Because Asperger’s is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction,  I recognize that most of these guys are not trying to offend. They are truly trying to reach out to someone of the opposite sex in the only way they know how: an extremely straightforward way. I am not rude to them. I do not belittle them. I do remind them that “I am married, and this is not an appropriate way to approach a lady you are interested in dating. “ This often strikes up a conversation about HOW to appropriately approach a woman. But… I am a forty year old woman.

For the following story, I’m changing all the details. The town. The name, etc. A couple weeks ago, I joined an Asperger’s Support Group on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Aspergers2/

A young girl joined the group. She had an unusual hyphenated last name.  Little Jane Unusual-Name was using her real profile and her real name. She began to tell us that she was diagnosed with Asperger’s and she felt misunderstood by everyone. She then told us she was 13 years old. As a mom to four kids, this set my Mommy Alarm off at full volume. ** ALERT ** ALERT **

Young aspies tend to be especially trusting and vulnerable. I immediately wanted to protect this girl. I told Jane that she should be careful on the internet. She shouldn’t be disclosing her age using her real profile. She said her parents had warned her about the internet but her profile was ‘safe’. I explained that I am a mom with four kids and that I was concerned about her. I bet her I could tell her where she lived and where she went to school in less than five minutes. She agreed to the challenge.

She had no location listed. She had only 3 pictures of herself. In one of the pics, she was with 2 boys she had tagged. I went to their profiles and both were from Smallville, KS. In one of the girl’s pictures she was wearing a shirt that said SJH (Smallville Junior High, I presume). I googled her very unique name and it directed me to King’s Landing High School’s facebook page located in… Smallville, KS. Her profile did not allow private emails, so I posted to her in the group and said you live in S****e, KS and you go to KLHS. I posted it like that. I didn’t write out the town name.

She immediately BLOCKED me.

I posted to the group and asked someone to please ask this girl to stop using her real name and real profile in online groups with strangers. I used my secondary fb account and posted to her. I told her that if I could find her information – anyone could. Blocking me would not stop others from finding her if they wanted to. I advised her to set up an anonymous profile and not use real pictures of herself if she is looking for support in online groups.   The group administrator blocked me.   He said no one should be using a fake profile even though many of the members obviously do. No one is really named Aspie. I hope this young girl listened.  Predators aren’t always THIS easy to spot:

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The problem with online Asperger’s support groups is that they aren’t screened. There truly is no way to know that every single person in the group truly has Asperger’s. Since there are so few services for adults, many “aspies” are self-proclaimed without an actual diagnosis. These groups often get trolls and other individuals who are just looking to antagonize or harass members. They are usually removed fairly quickly but they can do a bit of damage before they leave. Young aspie girls are especially at risk. The young, vulnerable aspie girl is a predator’s perfect victim because not only is she is so desperately reaching out, she is most likely very naïve as well. They may not recognize the warning signs of a predator, troll, or malicious person until it is too late. So please, young Aspies – when you go online for support – do as so many adults do:

  • Create a separate profile.
  • DON’T use your real picture. I can search for you by using your image just like they do on the MTV show CATFISH.  Use something that won’t identify you: your favorite TV character, cartoon character, peace symbol, etc.
  • Don’t have a location listed on your profile.
  • Don’t join ‘local’ groups with your anonymous profile. (Groups like “I love Smallville!”” could give away your location.)
  • If you are solicited for sex, don’t reply. Replying to that person will send them an email with your profile name. Record their name somewhere. Tell someone. If they are a member of a group, you can forward their email to the group administrator and block them.
  • Be sure to always report abusive content—whether it’s on your profile page, or someone else’s. You can also report inappropriate Pages. (Remember that reporting is confidential, so no one will know who made the report.)
  • Be careful who you friend. That 19 yr old boy may really be a 39 year old man or 43 yr old woman. You really don’t know.
  • Be cautious about the information you do share. It surprising how easy it can be to piece together information about you from the information you share.
  • If you are sharing something about the way another person has treated you, don’t use their real name either. Saying “Gabriel Hobbes really made me mad today!” gives readers an opportunity to google Gabriel Hobbes and maybe even figure out who you are.
  • Be aware that just because it says Asperger’s Support Group does not mean it is 100% SAFE! As I mentioned before: there is no screening. Even adult Aspies have had trolls and predators email them. The internet is NEVER safe.
  • When you are new to a group, sometimes it is better to observe for a while. You will soon discover the members/admins who are very active and seem to be trusted by the group. Although the internet is never truly safe, these individuals would be the ones who are least likely to be trolls.
  • Just because someone says they have Asperger’s doesn’t mean they do. I have met several individuals online who claim to have Asperger’s just to troll.
  • Remember Asperger’s is a spectrum disorder. Not every Aspie you meet online is going to be like you.
  • Finally: Please remember that NOTHING is ever private on the internet. Even in a ‘secret’ group. Anyone can take a screenshot of anything you say at any time and share it. Once you put it online, it is out there for anyone to share. Please be mindful.

I’m a slightly chubby, 40 yr old married woman. If I am getting solicitations on facebook, a pretty teenage girl will definitely be solicited. Please be careful.

Asperger’s, Autism, and Social Media: Sanctuary or Setback?

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, online forums and other forms of social media allow people all over the world to connect. In the online Asperger’s support groups I belong to, members with a confirmed Autism/Asperger’s diagnosis and those who self-diagnose/suspect they may have Asperger’s are equally accepted. No “proof” is required for an Aspie group to embrace you. Because there are so few mental health professionals that care for adults on the spectrum, many adults search the internet looking for answers.  Social media has been a lifeline to many people with Asperger’s, but it can also stifle their personal growth.

 I’ll start with the positive. Here is how social media helps a person with Asperger’s:

It helps answer their questions about Asperger’s.  Many people with Asperger’s have felt alienated for most of their lives.  After realizing their quirks may be caused by Asperger’s, they go on a hunt for answers.  It’s not uncommon to see these types of questions in an online aspie support group:

  • “When I eat, I eat each one of the foods on my plate completely before moving on to the next food. Is that just me or is it an Aspie thing?” 
  • “People always think I look upset but that’s just my natural facial expression when my face is at rest.  Is that an Aspie thing?”
  • “Does the sound of motorcycles make anyone else want to cover their ears? I have always HATED the sound of motorcycle engines.  Is that because of Asperger’s?

People ask all kinds of questions trying to determine which behaviors are governed by their own personality and which behaviors occur because of their Asperger’s. There are books and other types of media to help answer questions, but connecting with other people who have Asperger’s not only answers questions, it helps them feel less alone (especially when another members says “I do that too!”)

 Online communities allow Aspies to make friends – real friends – for maybe the first time in their lives without the stress of being socially correct.  Being online removes the stress of eye contact, correct posture, correct tone and appearance.  You can sit in your favorite ratty pajamas and make a friend without ever having to brush your hair or put on shoes.  Because the groups are Aspie support groups, there is already a commonality in the group: Asperger’s. No painful conversations trying to find some mutual connection. No internal dialogue about remembering eye contact or not standing with your arms crossed. There is safety behind the screen.

It allows us to have a dialogue with someone who thinks the same way we do.  When I talk with my friends who have Asperger’s, we have a different type of conversation. I can’t explain it exactly except to say we speak the same language. We’re straight-forward. We don’t get offended. Our conversations are logic-based, yet we laugh. We share. We know we don’t have to pussy-foot around conversation to make our point. There is a connection there that is amazing. It’s so nice to NOT have to explain your point of view because the person just gets it.

Unfortunately, the use of social media can also inhibit the social skills an Aspie needs to function in the real world because:

Support groups are designed to be supportive without being constructive.  Almost all of the support groups on social media are managed by other Aspies and not mental health professionals.  There is often no accountability for behavior.  You are simply allowed to be who you want to be as long as you aren’t intentionally attacking another person.  There is always someone to like your post.  It doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re a grown adult who likes to take pictures of her beanie baby dolls in different poses, someone tells you that you’re awesome! If you’re a grown adult who believes there is an alternate universe made up of fake Figgi humanoid characters and that for every human there is a Figgi, and you spend your entire day talking about the magical Figgis who live in Figgiworld, people tell you that you are awesome!!  They even encourage you! “How are the Figgis doing today?”  You can be as immature as you want to be and you are AWESOME!  It’s like one of those Barney episodes where the kids exude approval by constantly nodding “Yes” and smiling no matter what happens. It’s surreal.

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These groups are fantasy worlds. In the real world, if a 35 yr old woman walked up to her coworkers to share pics of her beanie baby dolls in different poses, she would not hear that she is “Awesome!”  She would be told that childish things are for children. If a coworker started talking about humanoid creatures in an alternate reality that “really, really are real! and I love Figgi Bon Jovi!!” they would be ostracized and laughed at.  Because these behaviors are accepted and encouraged in social media groups, Aspies may not learn what is socially appropriate. 

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Because they are not discouraged from hyper-focusing on their obsessions, they may not learn how to manage their obsessive thoughts. They may become even more confused when they do try to interact with people in the real world by behaving the same way they do in their online Aspie groups. In the Aspie groups, the behavior is rewarded positively with praise and compliments. In the real world they are chastised and excluded. They may not understand why they are not successful with interactions in real life and may choose to remain in an online support group world instead of interacting with the real world because the online group accepts them without asking them to adapt to the social norms of society.

When Aspies hide in the sanctuary of an online community that never asks them to push their boundaries, they may stop growing.  We learn by challenging ourselves. If an Aspie finds a safe sanctuary that allows them to play with toys, be as immature as they want to be, and never leave the safety of their bedroom and their pajamas, they may stop trying to interact with the world. This can be crippling.

Making online friends is wonderful. I have met some of my dearest friends through online groups, but in order for a person with Asperger’s to be successful in the real world, they have to learn how to socialize in person.  They have to learn that while it is normal for an Aspie to have some sort of obsession (dolls, trains, sci-fi), it is not considered “normal’ in the real world. Coworkers and friends will not want to hear yet another rousing tale of the difference between two types of trains even if you find it exhilarating.  Eye contact, although uncomfortable, is required.  When you constantly avoid eye contact, people believe you aren’t trustworthy.  There are other social cues – body language, tone, etc than can only be learned by interacting in the real world. It can’t be done by hiding behind a monitor.

With all things, moderation is key.  I believe it IS important to have a place to go where you have friends and are accepted, but I also think that we shouldn’t use that place to hide from the world.  To me, a true friend is a person who is completely honest. A true friend tells me I have lettuce in my teeth. A true friend lovingly tells me when I’m being too loud. A true friend reminds me that although my latest Leonard Nimoy/Star Trek bag is indeed “Fascinating”, I may not want to spend the next hour discussing Spock because our other friend wants to talk about her new baby.  A true friend helps me be a better me because she is truthful with me in a constructive way, and I would rather have that type of honesty than someone who just applauds my every action and tells me I’m “awesome!”.