Texting: A Virtual Life Skill

Most of us carry a cell phone, using it not only to call but manage busy schedules, order take-out and send texts. Studies are showing that upwards of half of all teenagers send text messages daily, some average 100 texts per day. Virtual life continues to increase for teens and young adults and is just part of their social life. Whether we like it or not, this is clearly an important life skill. Because of this, facilitating development of texting skills and knowledge can promote independence and social pride in those with autism spectrum disorders.

Teens and young adults with disabilities strive to be accepted by peers and benefit from connections with others, especially those in the same age range. Unfortunately, social and self-regulatory challenges impact the ability to fulfill these needs. Texting can help those with autism connect and feel a sense of social belonging which can lead to better well-being. The benefit being that engagement can occur without the potentially stressful face-to-face that often leads to social failure.

Texting is also important to community safety skills. Texting is an easy way to allow some independence to teens and young adults who, because of the stage of life they are in, naturally crave independence. Texting provides a sort of safety net and virtual support that our children still need.

Technology allows automatic accommodations as well. Built in spell-check and word prediction as well as use of emojis can be extremely helpful for those who have difficulty spelling. The tendency of text messages to be more relaxed takes some stress off of those who have difficulty creating grammatically correct sentences. Also, some find typing a much more effective way to express themselves as opposed to speaking.

Because texting carries a host of subtle and unofficial rules, it is important to teach acceptable social texting behaviors or etiquette to teens and young adults with autism. A whole new layer of challenges can be present because of the high risk of messages being misunderstood or misinterpreted due to lack of context. It is important to stress that we are still responsible for our feelings and actions no matter what. The risks of texting behaviors can jeopardize safety, contribute to bullying and compromise well-being.

Some important skills that those with autism benefit from when learning to use texting as a tool include knowledge of the distinct language that continues to evolve, often termed “textisms”. These abbreviations (e.g. LOL, IDK, BTW) can cause confusion but can also be used functionally. Basic etiquette is very important including education on acceptable situations in which to text, waiting for a response and answering questions from your conversation partner. Learning rules for texting, such as use of texts in the workplace is also important. Above all, safety should be stressed. Individuals need to recognize risky behaviors and be coached in responding to situations like receiving texts from strangers or responding to texts that make them feel uncomfortable. Provided previewing, coaching and boundaries, young adults with disabilities can experience a new world of independence and connection with peers via use of text messaging.

Lindsay Thelin Wagner, MS, OTR/L

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