Date of Award

August 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Information Studies

First Advisor

Jin Zhang

Committee Members

Dietmar Wolfram, Iris Xie, Alexandra Dimitroff, Min Wu


Autism, Health information, Social media, Social network analysis, Support groups, Topic modeling


Autism-affected users, such as autism patients, caregivers, parents, family members, and researchers, currently seek informational support and social support from communities on social media. To reveal the information needs of autism- affected users, this study centers on the research of users’ interactions and information sharing within autism communities on social media. It aims to understand how autism-affected users utilize support groups on Facebook.

A systematic method was proposed to aid in the data analysis including social network analysis, topic modeling, sentiment analysis, and inferential analysis. Social network analysis method was adopted to reveal the interaction patterns appearing in the groups, and topic modeling method was employed to uncover the discussion themes that users were concerned with in their daily lives. Sentiment analysis method helped analyze the emotional characteristics of the content that users expressed in the groups. Inferential analysis method was applied to compare the similarities and differences among different autism support groups found on Facebook.

This study collected user-generated content from five sampled support groups (an awareness group, a treatment group, a parents group, a research group, and a local support group) on Facebook. Findings show that the discussion topics varied in different groups. Influential users in each Facebook support group were identified through the analysis of the interaction network. The results indicated that the influential users not only attracted more attention from other group members but also led the discussion topics in the group. In addition, it was examined that autism support groups on Facebook offered a supportive emotional atmosphere for group members.

The findings of this study revealed the characteristics of user interactions and information exchanges in autism support groups on social media. Theoretically, the findings demonstrated the significance of social media for autism users. The unique implication of this study is to identify support groups on Facebook as a source of informational, social, and emotional support for autism-related users. The methodology applied in this study presented a systematic approach to evaluating the information exchange in health-related support groups on social media. Further, it investigated the potential role of technology in the social lives of autism-related users. The outcomes of this study can contribute to improving online intervention programs by highlighting effective communication approaches.