Twitter and Autism

When I was growing up, we never once heard the word ‘autism’ in our household. It wasn’t a banned word or anything. It was simply that my immigrant Korean parents had neither heard it before nor understood it (people who work in ASD advocacy know all too well about the important role that language and culture plays in whether a child gets help or not). It wasn’t until I myself grew to be an educated (in education no less) adult that my world opened up to what special education really meant, and, specifically, what autism spectrum disorder was.

Guess what my first ever teaching position was? I believe the exact title was ‘Behaviour/MID/Autism’. Ah, an eclectic mix for a first year teacher. Genius, our education system is at times. I digress.

One of the copious things I learned on my way up this steep learning curve was the role graphical representations of messages played in communicating with autistic individuals. At first, I remember thinking how absurd and airy-fairy the concept of storyboards were. Even as someone who lauds graphical representations of everything, I just didn’t comprehend how it could make such a difference to someone like my ‘weird’ brother.

It did. It made a canyon of a difference. I was shocked by the effect that an iconic image of, say, how to sit properly at a desk, could actually, with no trouble, explain and have my brother/students comply. Needless to say, this experience made a profound impact on me as a person, let alone an educator, brother, or parent.

And now, what have I discovered? Twitter. This tool that has seemingly encompassed a portion of my personal and professional existence has also proven to be something of a magic bullet for communication with my brother. When I have a verbal discussion with him, there is no way for me to ever know what or how much he has taken in of the interaction. He might block me out entirely, demonstrate what I call sly compliance listening, or just hyper focus on one word I said, taking it completely out of context.

Through DM tweets, however, we have clear, succinct, coherent conversations. What is more, it is fast, instantaneous, and allows me access to my brother which transcends simple behavior modifications. I don’t need to develop a social story and wait for him to do the same in response. It’s utterly mesmerizing to me. It’s like the ASD wall that is ever-present has a secret door whose key is possessed by Twitter. Imagine being blind and then someone giving you a pair of cool glasses that let you see; that’s what it’s like.

These days what I do is have a verbal conversation with him (How’s work? Damn them Blue Jays eh? Please remember not to give ‘props’ to every single stranger you meet on the street!) and then let him know that I will send him tweets about it as well. It’s been a godsend for us.

The obvious next question is why. Why is it such an appealing mode of communication for him? Why does the noise of his world seemingly get quieted through 140 characters? There are greater experts than myself who would better answer these queries. The only thing I will firmly attest to is this:

Never, ever, underestimate the visual and graphic aspect of social networking. Forget what you’ve been told about Learning Styles. Every kid that walks into your class is a visual learner. You are automatically differentiating instruction in your class by making social media a part of it because, if nothing else, it makes communication visual, graphical, and, in a sense, kinesthetic.



  1. I am so intrigued by your post. Just recently, I watched a video about a girl with autism and how her world opened up when she started to type her thoughts and communicate in much the same way. You are so lucky to have found a way to really communicate with your brother. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Royan,

    Thank-you for sharing such a personal and insightful view of ASD and SM. Although I use a lot of SM with my students, I did not consider its value in the various learning styles. Kinesthetic for sure!

    As well, your post helps me understand, see more clearly, a student I’ve taught with ASD for the past two years (he’s now graduated). When I started to use backchanneling in my class (via TodaysMeet), his “voice” stood out.

    As I move into a new relationship this coming year with a similar student, I will look at the use of SM with a new vision. Again, thank-you.

  3. We always hear about how dehumanizing technology can be, but this is the type of story that shows us the plus side of technology and the human potential. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Thanks for sharing this personal reflection. Interesting and somewhat unexpected that Twitter would help communication in this way. And yet, when I think about it, not so unexpected after all. I hope to share this to help others.

  5. This is a beautiful post about connections! I know I need to think carefully & be very precise when I tweet. I have to think about hidden messages, tone & ensure it isn’t sarcastic. By removing all of those things & taking away the facial emotions the reader can directly focus on the key message. Absolutely brilliant Royan!

  6. Love this post (think this is one of my favs!)

    Most of us take communication for granted, but for those with difficulties, technology can be their umbilical cord to intereact with rest of the world.

    Made me think about the issue of “fairness” when it comes to accommodations for students. We need to stop thinking about “fairness” as “every student getting the same” but rather as “students having access to the tools they need”!

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