Predicting Social Outcomes for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Is Anxiety Helpful?

Saturday, May 19, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
11:00 AM
K. Johnston and G. Iarocci, Psychology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada
Background: In typically developing children and adolescents, there is a negative relationship between anxiety and friendship; that is, the less anxiety one has the more friendships they also tend to have (Bukowski, Hoza & Boivin, 1994; Hodges, Boivin, Vitaro & Bukowski, 1999; Ladd, 1990).  However, recent research by Mazurek and Kanne (2010) has shown that this does not seem to be the case for youth with ASD.  These researchers found higher levels of anxiety to be associated with more dyadic friendships even when controlling for IQ and level of autism severity.  This finding is surprising because anxiety is generally found to be associated with negative social outcomes such as avoidance or social awkwardness, which are in turn expected to be associated with more negative friendship outcomes, not positive outcomes as these findings suggest. 

Objectives: This study builds upon Mazuek and Kanne’s (2010) findings by 1.) attempting to replicate these findings in a sample of high functioning youth with ASD with a comparable mean age and IQ 2.) investigating whether the relationship between anxiety and friendship is mediated by social awareness, social motivation and insight into social relationships.  We hypothesize that once these mediating variables are taken into account, the relationship between anxiety and friendship will no longer be significant.

Methods:  Participants are children and adolescents with high functioning autism (i.e., IQ >85 as measured by the Stanford Binet Intelligence Scale, Abbreviated Battery; Roid, 2003) between the ages of 7 and 17 and one of the youth’s parents.  Data collection for this project is in progress, however, data from approximately 35 participants has already been collected and we anticipate having 50 participants in total.  Several measures will be employed to measure friendship outcomes, anxiety, and each of the specified mediator variables including: The Social Responsiveness Scale (Constantino, 2005), parent- and self-report versions of the Behaviour Assessment System for Children, Second Edition (Reynolds & Kamphaus, 2004), and a Brief Friendship Questionnaire developed for this project.

Results: Results from the proposed research may reveal that, in the case of high functioning individuals with autism, anxiety is signaling something beneficial; that is to say, anxiety is indicating the presence of higher levels of the mediator variables, which are generally associated with positive social outcomes.   

Conclusions: It will be important to acknowledge that these youth with ASD are experiencing positive friendship outcomes in spite of the anxiety they are experiencing, and that this anxiety is likely to have a negative impact on other areas of their life.  Noting the exceptionally high levels of anxiety in youth with high functioning ASD raises an important implication for educational initiatives aimed at developing social skills (such as social awareness and insight) in this population for both schools and home-based programs: It is not sufficient to teach social skills and increase levels of social awareness, motivation and insight into social relationships without also teaching youth how to manage the anxiety that can develop as they become more knowledgeable about their social deficits.

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