The aim of this research is to explore how autistic adults use social media, how they feel about the way the platforms work, and how that impacts their interactions. Understanding how autistic individuals use language, images, as well as different technological tools to communicate in social media is important for the design of environments that are inclusive of autistic user abilities and preferences.
The project uses a participatory research approach based on a partnership between autistic people and their allies and academic researchers. To make sure the study reflects autistic priorities, we have collaborated with a group of autistic adults from the charities Autistica and Autistic Nottingham, through advisory board meetings and workshops.
This research was carried out through different phases.
During phase 1, we gathered social media posts from a set of participants and analysed them with linguistic methods. We also interviewed autistic social media users. We used a framework called linguistic ethnography, which combines observation of participants’ actions and use of language while actively seeking their own reports and reflections on such practices. This combination ensures that we understand what participants do and say in specific contexts, and how they make sense of their social world.
This phase of the work allowed us to gain an understanding of which social media affordances (these are features and capabilities typical of online platforms) are more relevant to autistic people, what kind of speech acts (what speakers or authors do when they say or write something) they tend to perform online and why, and how phenomena like masking happen online. The interviews also clarify how autistic people navigate the social norms typical of online interactions and how they negotiate a balance between trying to be understood by neurotypical users while also preserving a sense of authenticity in their interactions.
During the second phase of the work, the findings from the linguistic analysis and interviews became the basis for a series of co-design workshops, where autistic participants critically examined the design of mainstream social media platforms from the point of view of autistic experiences and perspectives. Through three workshops, participants discussed the present and future of social media and imagined a set of features they would like to see in existence in the social media platforms they use.
An analysis of the discussions and the features created by participants helped us identify a series of challenges posed by social media, coping mechanisms autistic people employ to meet these challenges, and a series of ways in which social media should change to support the social needs of autistic users.
To read more about both phases of the project, including accounts of research participants and descriptions of workshops, please visit the project blog.
We are now starting the final phase of this project, where we will publish the research findings in academic journals, discuss them in webinars and conferences, and use them to shape a design toolkit that can support designers in creating more inclusive social media platforms.
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This project has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is being run in cooperation with Autistica.