People with autism connect on the Internet | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 03.01.2013

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People with autism connect on the Internet

Asperger's syndrome was once seen as a social death sentence. But today, people with the condition can connect with each other online, which in turn promotes awareness.

"Quiet, unemotional, antisocial."

These are the words that are often used to describe someone with Asperger's syndrome. The disorder belongs to the autism spectrum, a family of conditions, which can severely inhibit a person's mental and social development.

More than often people suffering from Asperger's tend to be victimized by society, according to Dr. Fred Volkmar, Director of the Yale University’s Child Study Center.

The condition is "not all that common," he told DW.

It is hard to say just how many people have Asperger’s – around 250,000 are estimated to have the condition in Germany.

Interests interfere with social functioning

Asperger's syndrome is named after German doctor Hans Asperger, who first described it in 1944.

Young sufferers are sometimes jokingly called "little professors" by family members. They can rattle off facts about their favorite subject with an obsessive fervor.

Symbol picture of hands typing on a computer

Though shy in person, many autistic people are active online

Volkmer has seen varying interests in his patients from the Titanic, deep fat fryers to refrigerators and tectonic plates. But regardless of their interests, people with Asperger's have difficulty with the things that most of us take for granted.

Their special interests interfere with their ability to learn other things and social functioning, Volkmar said.

Also, the effect of school bullying and the social anxiety caused by the condition leads to difficulty forming relationships, he noted.

"They want friends, they don't want to be socially isolated," explained Volkmar.

On the Wrong Planet

The Internet is helping people with Asperger's overcome social isolation, according to Alexander Plank, the co-founder of non-profit Autism Rights Watch (ARW).

"When I was diagnosed, I literally did not know anyone who had the same diagnosis as me," he said.

Austistic children in a kindergarten.

Autism mostly affects boys

In 2004, Plank started the online community Wrong Planet to connect to others suffering from autism

In 2010, Plank began an Internet television program called Autism Talks TV - Youtube videos in which he tries to help other autistic people learn social norms and rules.

Today, Wrong Planet has more than 70,000 members – making it the largest online community for people with autism.

Promoting awareness

But the popularity of Wrong Planet has come with a price. In 2006, he was sued by the families of the victims of a 19-year-old Wrong Planet member named William Freund, who killed two people and then himself in California. Freund had posted cryptic messages on the site, saying he needed a "real life" friend and was contemplating suicide.

Wrong Planet has also come under fire for advocating "autistic pride" – some of its advocates suggest that attempts to "cure" autism would result in the "uniqueness" of the individual being taken away.

The school shooting in Connecticut in December, in which the gunman is reported to have suffered from autism, has once again brought a discussion on autism to the forefront.

But Plank hopes it will bring about greater awareness of autism.

"It is possible that someone could not know what autism is, look it up and then realize they have it and then go online and find support," he said.

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