It seems like hardly a week passes without some pearl-clutching thinkpiece bemoaning how social media is destroying meaningful human interaction. People are looking at their screens instead of making eye contact. We aren’t using our mouths to talk to each other. Instead of telling each other how we feel in detail, we click the “like” button to express approval. We sit next to each other in cafes and don’t look up. This phenomenon has been described as the end of intimacy. However, it’s the exact opposite. As an Autistic person, I’ve never felt more understood or free.
I’ve always felt more comfortable communicating in text. In high school, I had a lot of difficulty making friends. I was bullied. I’d happily expound on my favorite topics and was confused when the response from my peers was less than favorable. This is a pretty common experience for Autistic teens in mainstream settings. The advent of instant messaging allowed me to connect with people in ways I was less afraid of missing something important. I didn’t have to smile. Message boards allowed me to meet other people who shared my interests with the same joy and intensity I felt. I could talk about Star Trek with someone halfway across the world at any time of day or night, while most of the people around me could care less. I made lasting friendships with people I still speak to regularly, even a decade later. Suddenly, I was less alone.
Social media and smartphones are just a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Clicking the “like” button on Facebook is no different than clicking the “like” button on a speech generation device. The different is how many people can hear what you have to say. People who were previously isolated because of mobility or speech issues can find friends with shared experiences and interests. They get to be less alone.
People who oppose the use of screens aren’t trying to silence disabled people. The problem is that they aren’t thinking about us at all. When confronted with what smartphones can do for disabled people, anti-screen folks will claim that they are not talking about us. The thing is, when they look at a café and see people using their phones, there is no way to distinguish between the people who use phones as disability aids and people who just happen to find speaking through social media a perfectly adequate or even preferable mode of communication. A false hierarchy is formed, and of course, the ways some disabled people speak is at the bottom of it.
By idealizing inflexible, narrow definitions of communication, we are dehumanizing the people who don’t make eye contact, the people who don’t speak. Social media just gives us more socially acceptable and normalized options for communication. A world where people are “glued to their screens” is a world where I and others can more easily exist, succeed and be happy. Stop telling strangers you pass on the street to “look up.”