As with so many other things, the special-needs community is at a greater risk for exploitation when it comes to online media. Often, children with special needs are unaware of the dangers associated with online communication, making them a target for predators. Although all parents share this concern, special-needs parents are terrified of the thought that their child has an increased chance of being manipulated and taken advantage of in myriad ways. The Internet exposes differently abled individuals to a broader community outside the family and opens them up to a greater level of exploitation.
Many special-needs kids clearly demonstrate the need to be social but do not understand the appropriate behavior or boundaries involved in the interaction. A child with Down syndrome is likely to speak to or hug strangers in public, not because parents cannot control the child, but simply because of the child’s innate need to connect with another person and lack of tools to do so in a socially acceptable manner. This type of behavior could carry over into the online world in terms of instant messaging with unknown individuals or posting too much personal information to social networking sites. But the opposite is also true. It may be easier for an individual with an autism spectrum disorder to interact with others online, rather than deal with the stresses of face-to-face meetings, thus broadening his or her circle of friends and securing that much-needed socialization.
In today’s market, dating sites like eHarmony and Match.com are incredibly popular among people from all walks of life across the globe. Differently abled teens and young adults often use these sites, since they crave romantic attention, just like their peers do, but, again, have difficulty connecting with others and use a less stressful social medium to accomplish this. However, there is a huge risk in meeting a potential partner after having conversed only via email or phone. This taps into an area of weakness for many special-needs individuals, who will not always intuit certain unwritten rules of society. In this case, it is the fact that someone could potentially falsify information in their profile. Many neurotypical adults have a similar struggle with online protocol; some even lose money through email scams and the like.
Parents and educators need to come together to regularly teach children, both typically developing and differently abled, what constitutes acceptable online behavior, what the unwritten rules of the Internet are, and a plan of action if a situation becomes uncomfortable in any way. Only in this way that can we ensure that our children are best equipped to deal with the perils of the Internet, in order to use it to the fullest, most positive extent possible.