Saturday, February 26, 2011
Tips for using Twitter for Autism Support
I started using Twitter almost three years ago, first out of curiosity, then as a marketing tool for my photography business, and then in August 2010, primarily as a way to communicate with other parents of children with autism. It's been an excellent resource, and the advanced search features that allow me to search for words in tweets based on location have helped me build a great network of autism parents, both local and worldwide. In fact, our support group is populated entirely with people from Twitter at the moment!
Because of the isolation so commonly (maybe even universally) felt by parents of children with autism, especially their primary caregivers, social media like Twitter and Facebook and the new World Autism Community are important resources for people afraid to leave their child with someone else, go to play-dates outside of home, too embarrassed by a messy home to invite people over, or too afraid their child will bolt in a crowded place and get lost or injured. Autism parents, you know what I'm talking about. Social media gives you the opportunity to engage with other grown-ups. Possibly the most personal interaction available to them. Autism has taken over my life, and I need to have others who are in the same place as I am.
Because it's so important to me, I thought it might help someone to have some tips on how to use Twitter to it's fullest potential to build your own online autism community. I'm going to skip Facebook, because you probably know how to use that already.
As I already had been using Twitter for marketing, identifying engaged people in the central Ohio area who might be in need of a wedding photographer or baby photos, I already had some tools in my Twitter tool-box. First and foremost, I wanted to build my local connections. I went to the advanced page on Twitter Search and searched for keywords 'autism' or 'autistic' within 50 miles of zip code 43235. That's it. If you use Google Reader or some other RSS aggregator, Twitter provides an RSS feed so you can subscribe to this search. I've located 22 other autism parents in my area on Twitter this way.
Next, as you find them, set up a list and add your new contacts to it, like my cbus_autism list here. As you start adding non-local autism contacts, start another list for them, like my autism list here. Twitter clients like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck (that you can use on your desktop or on a smartphone) will let you put these lists in their own columns to help them stand out from other tweets.
Something that I've found useful recently, when you add someone from a search, send them a @reply and let them know that you're following them and why. Like, 'Hey @so_and_so, I saw you tweeting about your son's GFCF diet. My son is autistic too, so I'm following you now.' This will help make sure they follow you back and let them know you're not following them to try to sell them something.
Next, make sure you identify yourself on your profile. Mention autism in your Twitter mini-bio. Some folks get lots and lots of people following them, and they have to decide in a moment whether or not to follow someone back. When someone follows me, I check their profile to see if they mention autism or photography or they are local to me. Most other folks I don't follow back unless they say something to me.
Once you've got your local network in place, you will start seeing retweets from people in the national autism community and you can start building your national network.
Use these techniques to build other networks too, even if your primary interest right now is autism, build other networks. I've been introduced to other local autism parents by my local photography contacts. Plus, it's nice to have your life not 100% defined by your child's autism. Maybe just 80%. :) But that's actually another post that I'm going to write later.
Once you have these networks of people with whom you share the trait of being the parent of a child with autism, use it. Tweet about what your kid is doing, tweet about your challenges and frustrations, tweet about therapy, even just waiting in the waiting room while they're in therapy. Upset because your kid smeared their bedroom with feces? Tweet about it, I guarantee you that you're not alone. Tweet about autism related books and films. Tweet about autism related events like AMC's excellent Sensory Friendly Films or support group meetings. Tweet links to articles you've read related to autism or your blog posts.
Tweet about other stuff too though, if you start with the cliche and oft mocked 'this is what I had for lunch' sort of stuff, eventually you will evolve a more natural and meaningful tweeting style. The most important thing on Twitter though is to engage people. When someone says something that you can identify with, or that you're curious about, respond to them. Always broadcasting and never receiving or engaging is no way to build a relationship with these people who can become your new best friends (in real life even!)
I hope this helps you find as many awesome people as I have. Follow me and say Hi!