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Online Safety & SEN 1: The Search for Research

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I was asked to support an online safety & SEN training session for a group of special schools. To kick start a collaboration between us to raise awareness of the issues that young people with additional needs face. What quickly became clear to me was that in trying to find answers and solutions to support online safety education all I achieved was raising more questions. This is part 1 of a series of blogs on the issue of Online Safety & Special Educational Needs. (PART 2)

What is the Risk Online For SEN Pupils?

biggest risk dont know online safety quote

The answer to the main question is: The biggest risk is that we don’t know. We know the issues that are raised with us or that we pick up about our students, we can talk to other schools and colleagues. What we need to know is how sexting, viewing pornographic material, online gambling etc affects our most vulnerable students.

We can look through our records to find incidents reported to us. We can use our common sense, experience and professional judgement to extrapolate data theories gathered from neurotypical survey responses.

There is simply not enough published research specifically looking at SEN/Learning difficulties. What research I could find is either hampered by very small sample sizes. Between 7 and 30  for a couple of studies (I have listed them with links at the bottom of the page) or conducted using questionnaires or interviews requiring verbal responses. This immediately means that that research was not accessible to some of our most vulnerable children, those with low literacy levels or who communicate using alternative systems. Therefore cannot inform any practice in how we educate our students on these vital issues.

Now I know research is not the be all and end all. Many schools are developing strategies as a reaction to incidents. Many schools are engaging parents and educating staff on these issues. We do need more extensive research to understand the complexities of online behaviour in our vulnerable student groups. But a wider study encompassing and looking at a number of specific need groups would be a fantastic step forward and allow us to develop resources that would start to meet the needs of our learners instead of having to adapt mainstream resources.

SEN online safety statistic quote.jpg

Online Safety Bullying, Autism and SEN

That pupils with SEN are 16% more likely to be persistently bullied shows how vital education is to the children we teach. The Beat Bullying site that produced this no longer has an internet presence but you can download the PDF of the report here.


This research was conducted from the responses of 2000 pupils; what proportion had a diagnosis or statement of SEN I don’t know. So again I fear we are looking at a very small group. It also does not look into the impact of this bullying on our vulnerable children. The blows to their self image, the knocks to their confidence, the intrusions of negativity into their private spaces.

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Online Safety & Autism

Online safety is a concern for all children, but autistic children may face additional risks due to their unique characteristics and needs. Here are some potential risks:

1. Cyberbullying

Autistic children can be more vulnerable to cyberbullying due to challenges in social interaction and communication. They may not fully understand social norms or cues in online contexts, making them potential targets for bullying.

2. Oversharing Information

With difficulties in social understanding and judgement, autistic children may overshare personal information online, not realizing the potential risks. This can expose them to identity theft, online predators, or other forms of exploitation.

3. Difficulty Identifying Scams

Autistic children may have trouble recognizing scams or malicious intent online. Their tendency to take things literally and difficulty in understanding dishonesty can make them particularly susceptible to online scams or fraud.

4. Internet Addiction

Some autistic children may become overly dependent on the internet due to their intense interest in a particular subject or the comfort of online interactions over face-to-face social interactions. This could lead to an unhealthy balance in their daily activities, impacting sleep, physical health, and social development. This could include gaming addiction.

5. Exposure to Inappropriate Content

Autistic children may stumble upon or actively seek out inappropriate content without fully understanding the consequences. This can include violent, sexual, or extremist content that may be harmful or disturbing.

6. Difficulty Interpreting Online Social Cues

Online communication often lacks non-verbal cues like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Autistic children, who may already struggle with these cues in face-to-face communication, can find it even more challenging to interpret the intent or emotion behind messages online.

To mitigate these risks, it’s crucial for parents, teachers, and caregivers to provide guidance and establish rules for safe internet usage. This can include teaching about online privacy, monitoring internet use, and using parental controls or kid-friendly browsers. It’s also important to foster open communication, so children feel comfortable discussing any concerns or incidents they encounter online.

Links To Research about Online Safety & SEN

Here are the links to the research I did find If you know of anything relevant please add in comments or tweet me:







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