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Making the internet work for families with disabilities

Dawn Cavanagh works in the field of learning disability healthcare and has a teenage son with autism, epilepsy and ADHD. Dawn tells Parent Zone's Gemma Taylor how to make the internet work for teenagers with learning disabilities. 


How are children with SEN (special educational needs) vulnerable online?

Cyberbullying, online grooming, and exposure to inappropriate content is a risk for all children and young people using the internet. However, I think for children with SEN the risk can be more profound due to increased vulnerability, tendencies towards obsessive compulsive behaviour and social naivety. So, for instance, children with SEN and, in particular, those with an autism diagnosis may make interpretations of content online, which may affect how they respond. They may not understand the concept of friendship, which may lead to them being more trusting than their peers. They may also struggle to make judgements about what information is safe to share or not recognise that they are being bullied.

How can the internet be used to help SEN?

If used appropriately new technology can work well to support learning and social interaction. As well as learning new things, children and young people can repeat an activity as many times as they like to help consolidate their learning.  Young people with autism or other communication disorders also tend to find communicating on the internet easier than face-to-face communication, where they don’t have to decipher people’s body language, facial expressions and vocal tone.

What kind of research has been conducted around SEN children and online safety?

Even though young people with SEN are at greater risk online less research has been conducted in this area compared with young people without SEN. Some research in the Netherlands has found that higher rates of cyberbullying among young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are associated with lower levels of self-esteem and higher reported depressive feelings.

A more recent study investigating the perception of online risks by young people with SEN (aged 13-18 years) in Scotland revealed that while many young people with SEN were aware of a range of risks online, and could discuss how to stay safer, not all were able to put appropriate safety strategies into practice.

We definitely need more research in this area, and research that includes parents and teachers in terms of how best to support young people with SEN to stay safer online, whilst making the most of what the internet has to offer.

How can this inform how we teach young people with SEN to use the internet safely?

From the little research that we do have, we know that young people with SEN can be very vulnerable, so I think that internet safety should be everyone’s concern - including parents, schools, and the technology companies. We must all work together to help teach young people with SEN to use the internet safely.

What tips do you have for parents?

In terms of what parents can do to help keep their children safer, I would recommend installing internet filters so that you can control the content that the young person can see. Child-friendly browsers such as Ask Kids will automatically filter results that are adult in content. There are also many sites online that provide useful advice and guidance. Since we know that putting appropriate strategies in to practice can be a challenge for many young people with SEN, it's a good idea to show them 'how' rather than just say what to do.  For example, plan for possible scenarios with your child 'I will do X if Y happens', consider role play to practise safety responses, sit with your child and show them how to apply their own security settings, for instance.  

What kind of technology programmes can be useful for young people with SEN?

A favourite in our house is Sheppard software, which provides fun educational games or activities for children to play online. Funbrain also provides free educational games, books, comics and videos that help to develop skills in maths, literacy reading and problem-solving. Children with learning disabilities can watch lesson videos and practise their skills in attention-grabbing games like Penguin Drop. Game directions are conveniently illustrated to assist struggling readers too. There are even autism friendly servers.  For children who love Minecraft, for example, there’s AutCraft, which is a Minecraft server specifically for autistic children and their families. The environment has been modified so that players can roam free from the dangers frequently encountered in the game’s regular modes.

As a parent, how do you get the internet use balance right when it comes to monitoring vs. free use?

Our son is nearly fifteen now and absolutely loves Minecraft, the interactive online gaming phenomenon that allows players to build and create textured cubes in a 3D virtual world. Minecraft enables our son to have complete control of his environment and to engage in his special interests: time travel and Doctor Who. There is nothing he loves more than jumping in and out of his tardis, exploring new dimensions. However, we don’t permit him to play Minecraft online. This is because he gets confused and distressed by others’ attempts to communicate with him as he simply doesn’t have the communication skills or level of understanding that is required to play with other people. By playing offline he is safer and we don’t have to monitor him as much. 


Dawn Cavanagh is researching healthcare for people with disabilities at the University of South Wales.

Twitter: @Dawn26467771


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