Fifteen years ago when my kids were diagnosed with autism, online resources and support were really hard to find. Parents often felt isolated and disconnected from others going through the same challenges. Today there’s the opposite problem – information and support groups are everywhere! So the problem has now become how to find reliable and quality resources among the noise.
An additional problem with online support is finding spaces that make us feel safe and supported in an arena that is becoming increasingly marred by antisocial behaviour. This can be particularly true for special needs support groups, where differing opinions about everything from treatment to terminology can often result in conflict.
This means that staying safe online is about more than keeping passwords private and installing good antivirus software, we need to protect ourselves from threats to our social and emotional wellbeing too.
So how do we identify and protect ourselves from these types of harm? Here are some some tips for finding safe online spaces and good quality sources of support.
What kind of support do you need?
Having a clear idea of what you need will help you to pinpoint a place to start looking. Do you want to find new friends to chat with, or someone local that you can meet for the occasional coffee? Are you searching for a place to belong and feel accepted, or just somewhere to get resources and information? Do you need a group with a lot of interaction, or one where you can dip in from time to time?
What are the main issues that you need help with? What kind of interaction makes you most comfortable? Are you just starting out or have you been doing this for a while? These are the kinds of things that will help you locate the group that’s right for you.
Where are your boundaries?
Boundaries are the lines that we all make for ourselves with regards to what we can and cannot tolerate, between the acceptable and unacceptable. What do yours look like? Having a firm idea of where your boundaries are will help you to identify the groups in which you’d feel most comfortable and less likely to experience conflict. It will also help act as an early warning system about when a space might be starting to become unsafe for you.
How do you know if a support space is safe?
Safe and supportive groups tend to be ones where:
• You feel respected and comfortable
• You feel supported instead of judged
• New members are welcomed instead of excluded
• You can freely seek answers to questions
• Bullying, harassment and unacceptable behaviour isn’t tolerated
• Members feel empowered to speak instead of shut down
• The things you share are kept confidential if requested
• Worries and fears are met with concern and compassion
• Disagreements are handled in a mature and respectful way
• There’s a sense of community and members stay around for a while
• Members offer support to others as often as they ask for it
• Any boundaries for what can and can’t be discussed are clear
• All contributions are valued
• Successes are celebrated and struggles are supported
• Members actively work to maintain a safe space
Red flags for spaces that may not be safe or supportive include things like a lot of infighting amongst members, inactive or infrequent posting, nobody moderating the group, and the group being dominated by a single large personality.
What if you find yourself in an unsafe space?
Sometimes you might misjudge how supportive a group is, or start to feel uncomfortable in a space that previously made you feel welcome. There are three things you can do to take control of your own well-being at times like these:
Negotiating is about working together to find ways to share a space safely. How can the group make the space feel safer or more supportive for everyone? Have you communicated what your needs or boundaries are? Are there rules that need to be created, discussed or enforced?
Adapting is about you finding a way to make yourself feel safe within the group as it currently operates. Is there something you can do to make the space feel safer or more supportive for yourself? Maybe you need to focus on avoiding conflict with other members, or learn how to better manage your own feelings of tension. It might be that you need to find the self-control to step away from the computer more often, or drop back into lurker mode for a bit.
You have the power to decide when and where to spend your time. If an online space or members of a group are making you feel threatened or uncomfortable, log off or find support elsewhere.
Remember that the best kind of support group is one that cares about protecting your social and emotional well-being in addition to offering friendship or helping you stay afloat. And if you can’t find a group like that, maybe it’s time to start one!
Photo by Spencer Holtaway.
About the Author
Bec Oakley is a special needs advocate, writer, blogger, and a parent of two boys with autism in Australia. Autism is part of what makes her and her kids who they are, so she’s passionate about helping people understand what it’s all about. Check out her excellent blog, Snagglebox.com.