Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Aspergers and YouTube



When I first heard of YouTube, I was ambivalent about it.  "Just another way to waste time," I thought.  "What's the point?"  Then YouTube quickly outgrew the vision of its founders as a venue for people to share videos they had personally taken.  I am continually amazed at the uses for YouTube:  bootleg concert video/audio, just about every TV series ever made (in whole episodes or in snippets), documentaries, social awareness campaigns, spoofs, original series, porn, school projects, bullying, advertising, fan fiction, politics, news, voyeurism of all kinds, hobbyists, history, science, art, sports and, oh yeah, home videos.

Our daughter uses YouTube only occasionally, looking for horse videos or cartoons, and Taylor Swift videos, so I think she's representative of most tweens who get on the site intermittently, but for Safety Guy, YouTube has opened up the world in amazing ways.  It's become a calming mechanism for him, a way to feed his desire for knowledge about his interests, and a window on the world (in such a way that his struggles with social rules don't matter much).

At first he wanted to use YouTube just to look up old cartoons.  I showed him how to use my account, and I created a playlist for him, mostly of old Disney cartoons.  Then I made him a playlist of railroad videos, and one for natural disasters/science/shipwrecks, one for "how it's made" stuff, and one for explosions and automobile crash tests.  I previewed and added dozens of videos to each list, and he quickly learned how to add things himself.  We talked about being careful about reading the comments, and he learned about trolls and foul language warnings.  I told him that I had the right to look at anything he was watching, and that I would periodically edit his lists and eliminate anything I found to be offensive (and tell him why I found it to be unacceptable).  I also had to point out to him that I could access the viewing history at any time, so just because it wasn't on a playlist, I could still see what he's been watching.  He has been pretty good about minding our guidelines, but we had some early fireworks when I'd cut out certain videos (usually of people being mean or hurtful - you'd be amazed how many "America's Funniest Home Videos" fall into that category and aren't funny or harmless at all).  Once he was mortified when I called him on something he'd been looking up (wedgies, anyone?), and we count ourselves lucky that that's the worst thing he'd found to entertain himself on YouTube at 12 years old.

But much more than a new techno-entertainment gizmo, YouTube has been a learning and social skills tool for him.  First, it gives him a way to scratch his itches to learn about various obsessive interests.  Natural disasters?  Check.  Auto crash tests?  Bonanza!  Shipwrecks?  Oh yeah.  Trains?  Of course.  Police work? Yep.  The Titanic?  Sure.  Fire alarms?  Heck yeah.  You name it, he can find video about it:  instant gratification at its best.  And he has the typical Aspie encyclopedic memory for minutiae in his areas of interest, so he has stored reams of facts he can share at the drop of a hat - and he does share, daily, at length.

But more than the information overload, YouTube has been a social skills primer for him (admittedly more along the lines of "what not to do" in many cases).  This is where we really earn our parenting merit badges, by being aware of what he's watching all the time and discussing anything he doesn't understand.  Also, he can see that there are many people in the world interested in the same things he is, and who act like he does as well.  In fact, he can see that there are many people in the world a lot like him, and that it's okay to be intensely interested in a topic and share what you know at length and in great detail.  (This was especially obvious to him and to me when he decided to look up fire alarms, to desensitize himself to them and get over his phobia of them a couple years ago.  Suddenly he could see quite a few young men just as interested in fire alarms as he was, and it was clear that quite a few of them probably had Aspergers as well.)  YouTube has also provided us ample opportunities to discuss with him what NOT to say or do on video or in public, what's socially appropriate and what's not, what is okay to watch and what is inappropriate to watch.  Communication is the key to us using YouTube with our son.  We don't let him watch without any supervision or guidance.  He's not flying solo.

YouTube obviously has its major pitfalls.  It's a Wild West kind of site - you can find ANYTHING on there, great, good, bad, stupid and obscene.  Like I said, we have some safety nets built into his use of the site, and we have a program called Covenant Eyes to send us a flag when something inappropriate is searched or visited by anyone on any of our computers, by keyword or website.  The computers are both in the public areas of the house.  He doesn't comment on videos or communicate with anyone via YouTube.  We do our best to give him the freedom to explore it with guidelines to keep him safe.  He is almost 14, after all.  He won't learn the responsibilities of freedom and maturity if he's never allowed to test the boundaries and make mistakes.  YouTube has been a huge benefit for him, both socially and in expanding his interests and horizons.  He wants to take his own videos eventually and share them on there.

Maybe he can encourage other young people with Aspergers with his own videos someday, just by being himself.