Why Kids With Autism Should Stream

Like many therapists who work with adolescents with autism, I frequently get asked for guidance on improving peer relationships as they get older. Contrary to the stereotype, autistic kids do often crave peer relationships, dating, and popularity. It can make adolescence especially poignant as kids with ASD want to establish more independence from parents and gain the esteem of other teens but don’t know how to connect with their peers yet. They can experience heightened social anxiety, and retreat into coping mechanisms which help self-soothe but make them stick out when they very much want to blend in. There can be an uptick in depression, which increases hopelessness and decreases self-care. Decreased self-care leads to poorer hygiene, which makes teens even less popular. Parents, sound familiar?

So how do we interrupt this vicious cycle?

One way is to get your kids streaming online. Streaming, or live-streaming, is the broadcast of content over the internet on platforms such as Twitch or YouTube. The content can include commentary while playing or watching a video game, discussing a television series, plays, presentations on topics of interest, music, etc. You’re probably thinking “Riiiight, what does streaming have to do with helping kids on the spectrum become popular?”

Ok, stay with me here and I’ll give you some reasons:

1. Streaming promotes theory of mind

Anyone who has ever watched a streamer has had the experience of being in the audience. By empowering a teen to stream, we also create an opportunity for them to imagine the other out there watching. Even if they have few viewers to start with, we encourage them to act “as if” they were in a social setting where others have minds and feelings like they do and could respond to them. This reinforces the concepts of theory of mind and empathy, both in the streaming act and later in reviewing recordings.

2. Streaming is a very normative adolescent medium

Whether it be gaming, unboxing, critiquing videos or talking fashion, a majority of teens are now consumers of streaming culture, watching thousands of streams every day. It can be very empowering to let adolescents with autism know that they can be creators of streaming culture as well. Also, it takes the edge off of poor hygiene: In cyberspace everyone smells just fine.

3. Streaming can allow for 21st century social scripting and role play

Children and teens with autism are often being trained in social pragmatics, which has three general components: The ability to use language for different purposes (requesting things, greeting people, passing on information;) the ability to adapt language to changes in listener or environment (speak louder in noisy settings, speak differently to child or adult, give more or less information as needed;) and following unspoken norms or rules of conversation (taking turns speaking, gauging for interest, emphasizing points or emotions.) One way youth with autism can build mastery in social pragmatics is through the use of social scripts, practicing the rules and formula in low-stress environments where the social stakes aren’t as high or immediate. Streaming can provide such a place to do so, where teens can practice greeting viewers, looking directly at camera, pausing to view chat or take Discord questions, enthusiastically thanking viewers for watching, and ask what they might want to see next time, etc.)

4. Streaming allows for review

Streaming can usually be recorded, both the stream and the video recording of the streamer. This can provide the adolescent the opportunity to review and refine their social pragmatics with or without adult feedback. I ask my patients if they want me to watch at any point, and tell them I won’t be offended if they don’t want me to watch. After a stream, ask your teen how they felt when they were doing it. Were they able to forget they were being watched? Did knowing they were streaming live effect their speech or behavior in any way? How did they deal with questions or comments? What did they notice about their viewers? Do they feel energized or depleted afterwards? It can also be important to normalize their reluctance to view the recordings–many of us dislike seeing ourselves on camera, no matter how useful it could be.

5. Streaming allows the teen to behaviorally say “Hey, I want to put myself out there.”

No one starts streaming by accident, but starting a streaming channel can help teens overcome their social reluctance by embedding social engagement in content that they find enjoyable and invigorating. Have you noticed that it can be more invigorating to talk with people about topics that are interesting to you? Autistic kids think so too! The challenge is that a lot of times they are afraid to put themselves out there because they have had years of well-meaning adults talking about their “perseverating” on topics. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this concept is pathologizing and highly subjective: If you talk to me about football for more than 20 seconds, I’ll start to get bored think you’re perseverating. That said, many people can feel overwhelmed and ambivalent in the face of an enthusiastic person going on for a length of time. You know they are trying to engage and want to support that, and yet it feels too much! Streaming lowers the pressure on that for the listener, who can pause or take time off from watching if it gets too much for them, while still being engaged overall. Yes, part of the problem is the interest deficit in the neurotypical person–the problem doesn’t reside solely in the neuro-atypical one!

6. Streaming makes affinity groups larger and more accessible

Many teens on the spectrum have interests and intensity of interests that place them in the minority. This can lead to isolation and lower self-esteem, because they have fewer opportunities for mirroring from peers and their community. There are probably a whole bunch more people in Boston and Atlanta who spent February 3rd, 2019 watching football than My Little Pony, which can make the Bronies out there feel less-than. However, at any given time in the world, there is probably a larger group of MLP fans, and streaming helps flatten the world. Streaming, like technology in general, amplifies things and breaks down barriers. Don’t have anyone to talk My Little Pony or anime with? Start streaming narrations and discussions of episodes, and before you know it, you may have 1,800 people to connect with! There’s something for everyone, even those craving an online marathon of Mr. Rogers episodes..

7. Streaming can help kids develop other life skills

Been struggling with your child to get a job? Take a month or two off from the struggle. Help them set up a streaming channel. Then subscribe to Patreon, a platform that allows creators to accept income from people who want to foster their art. Maybe you can prime the pump a bit, to reinforce the work/income connection. I can’t tell you how many parents send mixed messages about money and work to their kids. Kids think a $50 bill they got in a birthday card from Aunt Mable is “my money” that they earned, when in reality it is a gift. Allowances may or may not be connected to chores, which are often a source of added conflict. Instead, why not have Aunt Mabel become a patron and donate $4 a month for the year to the teen’s streaming channel? That way, there really is a connection between work and income, and Aunt Mabel supports the arts? (Parents may want to self-check here to see if they are biased about their children and the arts. If you think art is not real work or valuable, that only a unique few can make a living from it, or that talent is entirely innate and you have it or don’t, then you are biased about your children and the arts.)

To get started, I recommend using Open Broadcaster Software, which is free and well-supported. Tom’s Hardware has a good reference for getting started here, just keep in mind you can stream much much more than video games, although doing that is cool too!

I do want to acknowledge that encouraging teens to put themselves out there has some real risks. Some of the streams and videos may be pretty quirky, and nothing vanishes completely on the internet. They may encounter hate speech or hurtful comments during the stream or afterwards, just like they may encounter it in life. They may feel very self-conscious after reviewing the stream. But I do think that for many teens with autism (or neurotypical kids for that matter) the rewards can outweigh the risk. Parents want to check for their own tech biases here: Do you support your youngster playing a sport? Risky. How about having them join martial arts, drama club, or run for student office? All risky. So why not encourage them to stream about something they like?

Curating an online presence for others, real and imagined, is actually a component of digital literacy we all need to do sooner or later, online streaming about a topic or activity of interest may give children and teens with autism some valuable practice and sheltered learning. It may also help them meet people in the wider world who share their interests, think they’re cool, and increase their popularity. That seems like a substantial reward to me.

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  1. My nephew has autism and the pandemic has been hard for getting therapy for him. I appreciated the tip about streaming being an opportunity for him to imagine that people are watching him. After reading this, I will definitely suggest an online program and streaming being worth considering for his treatment.

  2. Thinking about this as a man with HF Autism/PDD/Asperg:
    As good as this “could” be, I can picture not after too long (after getting a decent following) a higher chance for going against TOS-Terms of Service of platform by accidents because of the whole “trying to fit in” in a world that likes pushing people to do things they shouldn’t. I mean look at Sweet Anita via Twitch.tv with Tourettes: Though she’ll get a # of wholesome people in chat there will be trolls (people trying to get a reaction (often negative)) trying to tell them to do things that may seem harmless but will be against TOS, and if unsupervised (Suggest you watch and moderate (supervise) the stream till he/she can get people he/she can trust to properly mod him/her- and let him/her know whether action they ask for is ok/not), it will work against them in the long run with reports when the streamer will just not understand what was wrong. Another thing to watch out for with them is letting out more personal info due to creepers (yes males can get creepy guys and girls try to do find them for example. That all being said, a decent gaming/streaming computer with webcam & or cam+mic/internet stability is needed for resolution-less lag. Example: high upload speed+DL a computer that can handle a ton of info. I suggest watching a # of streamers and looking at their info..some will have their specs of computer gear. Good luck to any/all who plan to try. It can bring good lessons and increase better social skills, but just remember, the more viewers they have, which is a good thing for more revenue and popularity, the higher chances of bad stuff happening too-especially underhanded. Parents: work with and support your kid mentally/emotionally, esp if things go astray.

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