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  • Writer's pictureerikaolimpiew

Social Emotional Learning, Autism and Cybersecurity

What do Social Emotional Learning (SEL), autism, and cybersecurity have in common? First, let’s look some definitions for each of these concepts. According to CISA, “cybersecurity is the art of protecting networks, devices, and data from unauthorized access or criminal use and the practice of ensuring confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information.”[1] The Department of Education states that “Social and emotional learning (SEL) involves the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.[2] According to NHS, autistic people may find it hard to communicate and interact with other people, understand how other people think and feel, find some sensory inputs such as bright lights and loud noises overwhelming or uncomfortable, get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events, take longer to understand some information, and do or think the same things over and over[3].

Emotions are a form of communication about inner states from the self and the environment, derived from sensory inputs and environmental cues to the self and to others. Emotions enable people and animals to make decisions that benefit their ability to survive in a complex, uncertain world. However, some autistics process emotions differently than neuro normative individuals, which often leads to relationship and communication problems. Danielle Sullivan, an autistic writer, describes some of these differences a delayed emotional processing, and uncommon physical reactions[4]. Other autistic writers such as Jaime A. Heidel talk about the miscommunication problems that result when neuro normative individuals misinterpret an autistic’s intent and end up bullying or ostracizing the autistic individual.[5]

So what do SEL and autism have to do with cybersecurity, if anything? A lot, it turns out. According to, malicious social engineering is recognized as one of the greatest risks to information security, as criminals actively target human weaknesses.[6] Social engineers can be hackers, penetration testers, spies, identity thieves, disgruntled employees, information brokers, scam artists, executive recruiters, salespeople, governments, and even everyday people. Successful social engineers often are charismatic people who have an ability to understand and communicate with other people. Social engineers use their social emotional skills to persuade others to take an action that may or may not be in that person’s best interest, but that is always in the social engineer’s best interest.

In contrast, autistics often take people at face value and interpret communications literally, missing nuances in the conversation that may indicate sarcasm or dishonesty. This lack of social emotional understanding can put autistics at a disadvantage because more skilled social communicators can quickly deduce their naivety and take advantage of them by persuading them to take actions against the autistic’s best interest, such as persuading the autistic to give them money without paying it back, for example.

On the other hand, following rules and processes literally and consistently without making any exceptions is a good trait for someone working in the cybersecurity field, where following rules and processes consistently helps to protect an organization from cyberattacks. However, skilled social engineers can still get around rules and processes by impersonating the role of a trusted employee in an organization, for example.

SEL can empower autistics to protect themselves against these types of social engineering attacks. Being able to identify one’s emotions in different contexts and understand these emotions can give clues to the self about another person’s intent and add contextual evidence to help distinguish valid requests for assistance from social engineering attacks. Also, being able to honor one’s own emotions can increase self-confidence, enabling autistics to stand their ground in the face of persistent social engineering attacks. Believing in oneself and honoring one’s own emotions and decisions despite what others say or do is an effective self-defense strategy against social engineering attacks. These are my own opinions and ideas based on anecdotal examples. Additional research needs to be done to corroborate or dispute these ideas.

[1] Last accessed on 06/19/2023 [2] Last accessed on 06/19/2023 [3] Last accessed on 06/19/2023 [4] Last accessed on 06/19/2023 [5] Last accessed on 06/19/23 [6] Last accessed on 06/19/23

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