What is a friend? That question kept going through my mind as I planned a social media training for young adults and teens with ASD. What defines friendship? I knew that “friending” someone on Facebook didn’t make them my friend. But I also knew that many young adults don’t realize that and that such lack of awareness makes them vulnerable.
These thoughts occurred to me in 2012. At the time I was researching a book I was writing for the American Library Association on how to conduct library programs for children and teens with autism. In the process of collecting stories and ideas from libraries around the country, I discovered that a librarian at the Alvin Sherman Library at Nova Southeastern University had done social media training for teens with ASD in collaboration with CARD, a local autism organization. I decided to put this program idea into my book. I also wanted to be able to refer my readers to the best available guide to online social networking for young adults and teens with ASD or social skills issues. But my search turned up nothing. The Alvin Sherman Library used a government publication called “Net Cetera.” The information it contained about things like Internet safety and online etiquette was good; however, it was written with a focus on children. It did not cover topics vital to young adults and teens with ASD or social skills deficits. I was looking for a guide that did.
So, my only choice was to create one myself, but I wasn’t sure that I was up to the task. I had a certain knowledge and skill set. I was both an ASD mother and a trainer of librarians who work with this population. This experience was relevant but not complete, so I called upon Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser, a friend. Rhonda is a licensed mental health counselor with a graduate certificate in autism. She works with family members of people with ASD and provides social skills coaching to adults with ASD. She is also a published writer. The perfect partner for this project.
Rhonda readily agreed to collaborate with me. We worked on the project separately in our respective homes, mine in Connecticut and Rhonda’s in Massachusetts, discussing ideas and sending sections of the book back and forth. This process culminated in a marathon weekend session at my house and our first draft.
Early on we decided that this would be a book that had no stigma attached – one that a young adult with ASD could read openly without embarrassment. We wanted it to be a little intriguing, so that neurotypical peers spotting someone reading the guide might be curious and might want to see what it was about. Hence our title, The Secret Rules of Social Networking. Who doesn’t like to be let in on a secret? And the rules we present are a secret to anyone who doesn’t pick up on unstated social norms.
Our initial plan was to write a guide about online social media and Internet safety, but the more we discussed it the more we realized we were ahead of ourselves. During one of our editorial sessions, Rhonda mused, “what is a friend, anyway?” When she asked that question, we realized that before we could discuss the online world we had to define relationships. What kinds of relationships do people have in their everyday lives? What behavioral responses should one have to those relationships? What responses should one absolutely avoid? Once we had reached that realization, the basic structure of the guide began to take shape.
The next thing we decided was that, in order for the book to be effective, we had to focus on how young adults actually relate to each other. That meant not ducking the issues of romance and sexuality. Moreover, these two complex issues had to be dealt with clearly and simply. Therefore, we wrote two chapters, covering sex and romance both in person and online. We defined different types of acceptable flirting behaviors and created a chart that compared these behaviors to unacceptable behaviors like harassment. We also defined different types of romantic relationships and underscored the dangers inherent in any sexually related online activity.
We wrote the guide to emphasize principles that apply to a range of social media, and not to be site-specific. We felt this would make the guide more useful. There is a lot of information available about how to use specific media, and we felt no need to duplicate those efforts. Some terms like “friend” are connected to a specific site but clearly represent broader principles that are important for young adults with ASD to know, so we included them. We recognized that media change constantly and that the popularity of various sites waxes and wanes. Our aim was to create a guide that would be as applicable to next year’s new hot site, whatever that might be, as it is to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media sites that young people are using today.
We knew we were dealing with a population averse to large amounts of dense text, especially in how-to books. So we incorporated a lot of lists, charts, bullet points, and white space. The spot art, in the form of cartoon-like illustrations that appear throughout the book, makes the guide less intimidating and reinforces our ideas for the visual learners among our readers.
For the illustrations, our hope was to find an artist who was part of our target audience. It took a while, and we had a couple of false starts; then we found Yasmin. I’d known her mother for years, but didn’t know about Yasmin’s artistic ability. A friend suggested her; we looked at her work, and we had a match! Yasmin’s manga-type drawings are perfect for this project, and the fact that she has a developmental disability reinforces our message that people with disabilities can accomplish wonderful things with the right supports.
Once we had completed a draft, we asked several young people who were more adept in the world of social media than either of us to look it over and give us feedback. What we heard most often was that the need for this information was not limited to people with social skills deficits, and everyone who read the draft knew of some young neurotypical person they felt would benefit from the material in the book. In fact, one of our test readers, a professional woman in her 20s, informed us that she changed some of her own social media settings after reading the manuscript of The Secret Rules of Social Networking!
We put a great deal of care into ensuring that the book is simple, clear, and concrete. Because of that, many readers should be able to follow the guide and develop more successful social networking habits using the book by itself. Others who are not good readers, or who have difficulty learning from a print resource, will be more successful if the guide is used with a professional or parent as part of broader social skills training. The guide can easily serve as a resource in a curriculum that breaks down the information into a series of simple lessons, supported by social stories and other teaching aids.
Whichever way it is used, we hope that this guide, The Secret Rules of Social Networking, helps our readers develop online connections that satisfy the need we all have for affiliation with others. We also hope the guide will help our readers use their online experiences to improve their in-person relationships and, as a result, find all of their relationships more navigable, less anxiety producing, and more fun. Knowing that we have played a part in improving the lives of our readers in this way gives us great joy.
MEET THE AUTHORS
Barbara Klipper, an ASD mom, was employed for 15 years as a youth services librarian at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, where she promoted and developed library services for young people with disabilities and their families. She has led workshops for librarians on how to work with and program for children and teens with autism and has presented at conferences on related subjects. Active in the American Library Association (ALA), Barbara has served as a member of the Schneider Family Books Award jury (which recognizes excellent portrayals of characters with disabilities in books for children and teens) and the ALA Accessibility Assembly. For ALSC, the children's division of ALA, she served on and chaired the Library Service to Special Population Children and their Caregivers committee, taught two webinars on programing for young people with ASD, and wrote several articles and blog posts on topics related to children with autism, including one on apps and autism. Her book, Programing for Children and Teens With Autism Spectrum Disorder received a strong review in Autism Asperger Digest and a starred review in School Library Journal, and has been nominated for the ABC-CLIO library literature award.
Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser holds a master's in counseling psychology and a certificate in autism spectrum disorders from Antioch University. Currently, she works with young adults with ASD, providing counseling and social skills coaching. In addition, she councils neurotypical adults and children of Asperger parents. Shapiro-Rieser also holds a D.Min. in spiritual direction. In her role as spiritual director, she was recognized by interfaith Connections of Western Massachusetts for her work in building Jewish identity in children with special needs. She is in the process of writing a handbook on ASD for religious school educators. She is also a martial artist, As a second degree-black belt, she has seen the benefits of martial arts for people with ASD, and she encourages clients to become more involved in such activities. Finally, Rhonda is a novelist, having authored A Place of Light, a finalist for the rainbow prize.