Why Can’t I Break the Cycle: Autism and Internet Addiction

Some studies have found that there is an association between internet addiction and autism (Romano, Truzoli, Osborne, & Read, 2014). The question becomes how we understand the relationship between the two, and what we can do to effectively treat it. Contrary to common belief, non-social characteristics, such as engagement in repetitive and restricted behaviors, may lead to a greater likelihood of internet addiction (Shane-Simpson, 2015). However, I have noticed that there are a variety of different reasons why neurodiverse individuals struggle with compulsive internet use and treating them at their source is the most effective form of therapy. Like many addictions, it is often the symptom of deeper underlying psychological issues, such as generalized and social anxiety, as well as an avoidance of the offline world. Let’s explore a few of the risk factors and proactive solutions below.

            many neurodiverse individuals struggle with understanding the social nuances and body language necessary to establish friendships. Therefore, online gaming and chat forums offer a way to connect without the pressures of face-to-face interaction. While many meaningful friendships have started online, they rarely replace the depth and intimacy of in-person connection. However, online interaction may feel safer and more secure for neurodiverse people, although they may also be the target of scams and other malfeasance. Eventually, the world they construct online can come to replace the offline world. However, this can be addressed through increased exposure to offline activities that build competence, such as joining one small social group (dungeons and dragons, bowling, video game and music club, etc). Sometimes, starting with an outside activity, such as simply taking a walk around the block with a friend, can increase engagement with the outside world. Many people with anxiety benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps to address the automatic thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their anxiety in social situations.

            Internet addiction may also arise from the isolation that results from lacking regular employment. Some neurodiverse individuals have a history of struggling to maintain a job, which results in their spending hours alone in their rooms where the internet is easily accessible. Therefore, creating a regular structure becomes paramount, and this can go beyond job searching. Activities can include meetup groups, volunteering, and regular exercise routines, for example. Parents may need to be involved in helping their adult children to create this structure through daily planning, etc. This can also be an opportune time to develop some job skills through a training course or by shadowing. In general, a period of unemployment does not have to mean a period of unstructured activity.

            An important component of internet addiction is the excessive use of pornography. Viewing sexually explicit material online is a healthy form of release for many adults, and we should be careful to refrain from shaming. However, it also depicts sex unrealistically, and at its worse, in a degrading and dehumanizing fashion. It is also important to recognize that some neurodiverse people are sexually inexperienced, and therefore may have a limited understanding of what realistic sex and dating looks like. Therefore, I often reference resources such as The Guide to Getting it On by Paul Joannides for providing an educational alternative to online pornography. In general, breaking the taboo around porn can help to open up a discussion regarding healthy explorations of the nature of sexuality that can lead to the replacement of porn dependency.   

            As therapists, it often behooves us to identify with a client what their underlying causes of addiction are. The problem is usually not just the internet, but rather the fact that the person is escaping from underlying emotions. It can be a welcome reprieve from the pain of constant social rejection, job loss, and just general feelings of depression and anxiety. The reality is that many of us have not been provided with the tools to address these feelings. However, what is especially difficult for many neurodiverse people is that they lack the interpersonal and professional skills to actively solve their challenges by themselves. Therefore, a feeling of hopelessness may emerge, which can only be escaped by a return to compulsive internet use. A key component of treatment is not only addressing the feelings of inadequacy that many neurodiverse individuals have, but also providing practical tools for achieving professionally and socially. If we can provide concrete evidence that these barriers can be overcome, neurodiverse young adults may be more inclined to engage in the offline world.  

            There is no one size fits all treatment modality for internet addiction. However, we need to recognize that the stressors faced by the neurodiverse, especially during young adulthood, can be overwhelming. There is also a neurological cause to the addiction, as new synapses are formed by internet use  (The Big Think, 2011).  Sometimes, by breaking the recovery process into more manageable and easier steps, such a gradually decreasing the frequency, we can help this person’s recovery. The most important takeaway is that the more we help neurodiverse adults to have confidence in their ability to build professional and social skills, the more likely we are to see a reduction in internet use.     

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