As COVID-19 spreads across the United States, families with school and college-age children are feeling the impact. All colleges have restructured their schedules for distance learning, and it is unclear when, or if, K-12 schools will reopen this academic year. This upheaval is difficult for all students, but it is particularly challenging for those living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities.
Since students are now sheltering in place, it is vital that families monitor their online activities to protect them from Title IX complaints and potential criminal behavior. As we discussed previously, Title IX still applies to college students studying at home, and criminal laws, particularly those protecting children from online abuse, are always in effect.
Despite having difficulty with social interactions, young adults with ASD crave friendship and connection and experience sexual desire in line with their neurotypical peers. For many, socialization occurs at school, where students depend on the routine and benefits of being surrounded by peers. Isolation seems like a personal punishment to students. Thus, like all students, computers are the only vehicle for socialization.
Many students turn to “Zoom” dates with each other, leaving some uninvited or unwanted. Because students with ASD often have difficulty understanding social cues, they may not pick up on the obvious, but indirect, messages they are receiving from their peers. Repeated attempts to call, text or join the Zoom group—particularly when a student has nothing else to do—can occur. Undoubtedly, recipients of these unwanted messages will feel frustrated, and some will feel threatened and file Title IX complaints and allege that they are the victim of stalking under the college’s policy.
We have also represented clients who have had online sexually explicit conversations with minors. Limitless, unstructured internet access places young adults with ASD at a greater risk for engaging in compulsive behaviors without understanding the potential consequences. Thus, a student can unknowingly find himself investigated for possession of child pornography, importuning or improper distribution of pornography.
Similarly, young adults on the spectrum – even those who are academically gifted – may have the emotional maturity of a young teenager. Faced with the sudden absence of routine and same-age peers, they are at an increased risk for reaching out online to people at their emotional level. If a 23-year-old has the social maturity of a 15-year-old, then that person may very well talk with a 15-year-old, including about inappropriate topics that could lead to trouble.
This is a difficult time for all families, and even more so for those with students with ASD and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. It is critical that young adults with ASD not be left alone with unfettered access to the internet, both to protect themselves and others. At the same time, we realize that right now, the computer is an easy distraction. As hard this is for families, we offer a few suggestions: move devices to a public area and encourage low tech activity. Also, be sure to have direct conversations about internet risks.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss further, please contact Student & Athlete Defense / Title IX attorneys Susan Stone (email@example.com or 216.736.7220) or Kristina Supler (firstname.lastname@example.org or 216.736.7217).