The landscape of today’s internet is complex, especially considering the advent of social media. Despite the complicated nature of social networking platforms, it has become increasingly important for individuals to have an online presence. GGSE students Daina Tagavi and Anthony Osuna have realized the need for everyone to have equal access to social media, including people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Tagavi and Osuna are second-year and third-year Clinical Psychology graduate students, respectively. To address the lack of structured education for social media platforms for individuals with ASD, Tagavi and Osuna created the SELFI (Socialization Education and Learning for the Internet) project last fall for the Koegel Autism Center.
SELFI targets online social communication for adults between the ages of 18 and 35 with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Through weekly, one-hour individual sessions with a clinician, individuals participate in a personalized intervention, designed to build comfort and confidence when using social media. The curriculum teaches participants how to interact online, ranging from what is and is not appropriate to discuss on social media, to more complex issues, such as posting content that will interest their audience.
Many norms for behavior online are not explicitly addressed, but rather learned after a period of trial and error, which can be difficult for individuals with autism to adhere to. Despite the importance of these skills, there is still a lack of research in this area. “Our department doesn’t do anything like this,” Tagavi shared. “We took some of the social skills interventions that we already had, and adapted some of those skills to teach adults, young adults, and eventually teens, how to interact online.”
The initial run of the SELFI project began in Fall 2018, with broad topics that dove into the nuances of using social media. In each session, participants are encouraged to share their progress by providing examples of their social media activity. This hands-on approach allows them to share their progress, but also provides a space to share their fears or missteps they had when applying lessons from the week before. Participants are also able to share their own goals, which allows for them to identify parts in the curriculum that will help them reach particular milestones. Osuna explained, “Depending on where they’re at with their social media journey, some of them may want to make more friends, or connect with old friends, or not get into Facebook arguments.”
After identifying potential goals, instructors use research and experience influenced curriculum to teach participants the skills they need to create ideal online experiences. “Sometimes it’s pulling out a laptop and practicing themselves, sometimes it’s an activity on how to interpret other people’s online presence, and then we leave them with a summary and a goal,” Osuna said.
There are not many educational services for the autism community in Santa Barbara, especially related to internet skills. “Daina and I came together and noticed this problem and hypothesized how we could take a look at it so that we could help the people we are looking to help,” Osuna said. “The SELFI project shows some promise and we are excited to continue to develop the intervention so that we can help more people who are learning to navigate social media.”