Objectives: This study aimed to determine if children’s social networks and various friendship features were stable over time and whether there were any differences in the social network salience between children with an ASD, children with a non-ASD disability, and typically developing children over the course of one academic year.
Methods: A total of 440 children participated in this study and were recruited from 19 classrooms in the university lab school. Of the 440 total participants, 338 were typically developing children (47.6% male), mean age of 7.53 ± 2.32 years old, 76 students (56.5% male) were suspected of having a disability by the school psychologist, mean age 7.96 ± 1.93, and 26 students were diagnosed with or were suspected of having an autism spectrum disorder by the school psychologist, were fully included in regular education classrooms and were an average of 7.84 ± 2.17 years old. All children completed a friendship survey that was coded for children’s friends, connections, rejections, and social network status following the methods outlined in Cairns and Cairns (1994).
Results: As a whole, social network salience increased for all students across one academic school year, F(1, 425) =16.65, p<.001; where, children in the upper grades were increasingly more likely to have higher social network salience as the school year progressed, F(3, 425) = 16.04, p < .001. Compared to children with a non-ASD disability and typically developing children, children diagnosed with autism or were suspected of having an autism spectrum disorder had significantly lower social network salience, F(2, 425) = 11.02, p<.001, received significantly fewer friendship nominations, F(2, 425) = 9.94, p<.001, and more rejections, F(2, 425) = 18.00, p<.001, averaged across one academic school year. In addition, children with autism and children with a non-ASD disability also had significantly lower best friendship reciprocity compared to typically developing children, F(2, 366) = 5.34, p<.005.
Conclusions: These are among the first longitudinal data to suggest that children’s social networks and statuses are relatively stable over time. These results indicate that even some fully included high-functioning children with ASD struggle to find stable friendships and their niche in their classroom’s social structure. Additionally, these data suggest that school-based interventions that foster social development are needed for children with ASD. Perhaps future studies should examine the important role that teachers and paraprofessional might play in facilitating friendship formation and maintenance at school.