UK research study to improve online safety for autistic children



Academics from Heriot-Watt University are launching a comprehensive research study into online safety for children on the autism spectrum.

While previous studies have examined how autistic children use the internet and interact with their devices, there is a lack of evidence into how to protect them while they are online.

Many young people on the autistic spectrum are higher than average users of technology and social media accounts with the internet providing an essential lifeline for building friendships, sharing interests and developing life skills.

However, initial focus groups conducted by the Heriot-Watt research team found that some parents and carers of autistic children characterised their child's online safety awareness as “naïve”, and felt their children lacked the skills required when it came to mitigating online risks.

Parents and carers are invited to take part in the survey to help the researchers develop new software tools that will better protect all children when using their devices.

Kirsty Macmillan, a PhD student from Heriot-Watt University, is leading the survey. She said: “We hope to identify whether there are specific devices that pose more risk than others and this information will help us to design software solutions to help parents better manage the risks their children face.

“Parental controls and restricting internet access can potentially cut off social ties that young people have online which, for many young people on the autism spectrum is their preferred method of contact. Once we know more about the risks autistic children face, we will develop software interventions that will notify the child when they have clicked on an unsafe link. These tools will be designed to help all children to enjoy the internet safely and we hope will give both parents and children additional protection and reassurance when it comes to online use.”

Dr Tessa Berg, an assistant professor in computer science from Heriot-Watt University, explains: “Previous studies have shown that children on the autism spectrum can be more prone to loneliness, peer rejection and poor well-being. Research has found that using the internet can provide them with a much needed lifeline to help them socialise and share interests. However, the pitfalls can include making unauthorised purchases, viewing unsuitable materials or falling victim to phishing emails.”

Over the coming months, the team aims to survey several hundred parents of children on the autistic spectrum as well as those with children who are not autistic to find out what risks are the most prevalent, how parents are currently trying to keep their children safe and whether there are differences between the two groups. They will also be examining how the age of the child affects the risks they are prone to.

Mike Penny, Chief Executive of Lothian Autistic Society, said: “We welcome this research that will tackle some of the challenges that children and young people on the autism spectrum face online. Children and young people with autism tend to take things literally and at face value, which can make them easy targets for bullying online and hackers who try to do harm.”

A parent from Edinburgh with an 11-year-old child who is on the autism spectrum said: “My daughter loves the iPad. It is something she can use pretty much independently and provides her with a degree of independence. She cannot really read or write so she is particularly vulnerable. She may click on to inappropriate downloads masquerading as legitimate child friendly content. We know there are parental controls and whilst we have some in place, sometimes these are too restrictive and she wants to see big girl stuff.”

The survey is open to all parents with children aged six years and over and will remain active until December 2018. Please complete the survey via this website.  

The research project is currently funded through a 3-year doctoral training partnership from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).