Internet Safety for Children with Autism

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused; COVID-19 Topics

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA
[The following column was published in the West Springfield Republican on 1/30/20 and in the Randolph Herald, Stoughton Journal, Canton Journal, and Holbrook Sun on 6/10/20.]

These days, most of us are trying to keep ourselves safe and healthy by staying six feet away from others and wearing masks out in public. We're teaching our children to do these things too, but what are we doing to keep them safe on the internet?

With children spending more time than ever online during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to make sure they are safe in cyberspace.

This can be even more critical if your child has autism because of the communication deficits inherent with the diagnosis. When he (or she) encounters an unfamiliar person online, he may need explicit instruction about how to interact appropriately and protect his privacy and safety.

First, set the stage for success. Ensure whatever device your child uses is set up with limits regarding what content he can access. You can usually adjust this under the device’s settings as well as in the settings for the internet browser or application being used. You want to teach your child what content is appropriate to view versus what’s off limits, as these settings aren’t always foolproof. You can’t expect these settings to be applied to every device he comes in contact with. Make sure he is able to identify inappropriate content if he encounters it.

Next, establish early on the expectation that you will monitor his internet usage. You can do this by putting the family desktop computer in a common area like the living room or dining room (as opposed to in his bedroom), or requiring that a laptop or iPad only be used in those locations. If there is a password on the device, consider not providing that to your child. For an older child, make sure the password is known to you. That may mean not allowing him to change the password either by setting up a restriction in settings, and/or by making a household rule that parents always know the password. Then, perform periodic checks of content, chats, and messages. It’s easier to establish this oversight from the beginning as opposed to reigning in access later.

With those measures in place, think about what you need to teach your child about how to interact digitally. For example, be sure he understands that not everyone is who they portray themselves to be online. Because he can’t see the person’s face or know that a picture is actually representative of the person sending it, he needs to approach these interactions with caution.

Be explicit when you explain that certain information should not be shared with others online, including last name, address, or other identifying information. Consider practice and role-play to make sure he can adhere to the rule in practice. Also, be sure he understands that anything posted online is “out there” forever. Anyone who sees his content can save it and share it without permission, even if your child takes what he posted offline. Consider posting a visual near the device that lists internet rules (who can I chat with; what information can be shared with whom; would I be comfortable if everyone in my class knew I said this about my friend?).

Internet safety considerations for people with autism are very similar to what we teach all children. However, keep in mind that some social nuances may not come naturally to a child with autism. Clear boundaries, explicit rules, practice, and visual reminders may be necessary to ensure he can navigate the digital realm safely.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit