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Social Networking and Texting Help Special-Needs Kids Communicate

Put contemporary communication tools to good use

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Facebook. Twitter. Text messages. Chats. Parents are often warned that using social-networking sites and other alternative modes of communication will cause terrible problems for their teens and tweens. Certainly, there's risk -- but for kids with special needs, there's risk aplenty in old-fashioned face-to-face communication, too. Unlike interactions on the playground or in the classroom, parents can monitor online and on-phone messages, and help socially tongue-tied or tone-deaf kids fine-tune their approach. When used with appropriate caution and supervision, social networking and text messaging can be great tools for improving communication and connection skills. Here are some ideas on how to use them safely.

1. E-mail

Screenshot courtesy of Google application
For starters, set up an e-mail account for your child that you can monitor. I have a step-by-step you can follow for setting up a Google Mail account and forwarding copies of messages to your account: "Set Up an E-mail Account for Your Child That You Can Monitor." This gives you a window into the social networking your child is doing -- you'll see copies of Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages, for starters. As with all of these social-networking tools, let your child know what you're doing and that you will be monitoring for safety's sake. Make it a condition of starting out in the social-networking world; you can agree to discuss fading out later, if appropriate.

2. Facebook

Facebook
Photo Illustration by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

For a young person who has trouble forming frienships in the "real world," gaining "friends" on Facebook can be an esteem-builder. The potential is also there for social disaster and bullying, but if you provide supervision, it can become a great opportunity to learn how to use the Internet, strengthen typing skills, decipher peer communications without the stress of face-to-face contact, and have an age-appropriate experience. For ideas on why Facebook may be a good idea and how to keep your young person safe, read:

3. Twitter

Twitter
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Even if your child never types 140 characters, he or she may enjoy following the Twitter feeds of actors and sports figures. The short messages are easy to read and understand, and are less likely to feel like work than reading a newspaper or magazine. But the writing is also exceptionally easy on Twitter -- no 500 word essays required. Your young person may not find as many friends on Twitter as on Facebook, but that makes it a relatively safer place to play. If you're using the service and have friends and family members who are willing to follow and Tweet with your child, it can be a fun way to keep in touch while also learning typing and communication skills. You will want to monitor your child's account to make sure nobody inappropriate is following or spamming, so set the account up with your child and make a note of the password.

4. Chat

Online chats take a lot of the variables of human interaction out of the equation -- things like body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. For kids who have a hard time interpreting those things, chat or instant messaging may be a less threatening way to converse with friends and family members. Emoticons make it easy to understand somebody's mood or intent, and to express your own. Help your child practice chatting by chatting with him or her online yourself, even if you're in the next room. When your young person is chatting with peers, stay nearby to offer interpretations of what's being said and suggest responses. Be ready to curtail chats with people your child doesn't know or interactions that are upsetting.

5. Games

Many of the games on Facebook have a social-networking component, allowing you to, say, chat with other players during a game of UNO, play remote games of Scrabble with friends and family members, brag about your accomplishments in single-person games, and bombard your online contacts with Farmville requests. Kids who see no value in using sociala networking to express themselves may find the games a good way in, and eventually expand into some of the service's other opportunitites.

6. Texting

Photo by Terri Mauro

The downside of texting is easy to see: big phone bills and trouble at school if your young person can't put that phone away. But there's an upside, too, and it's all about making communication easier for kids who are not fluent in the spoken word. Texts can be short, they don't require perfect spelling or fully formed words, and they let your teen do what every other teen is doing. If you can get an unlimited texting plan, take advantage of all those messages to text with your son or daughter, even when you're in the house together. Start it out as a fun game. Even if your young person doesn't have friends to text with, you may be able to set up a network of family members and family friends, and even therapists who will help with this communication practice. Let the phone save those text exchanges, and you or your child's speech therapist can review them to pinpoint particular skills needed or displayed, and practice new ways to respond.

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