Social Network Analysis of Children with ASD: Predictors of Fragmentation and Connectivity in Elementary School Classrooms

Friday, May 15, 2015: 3:30 PM
Grand Ballroom C (Grand America Hotel)
A. Anderson1 and C. Kasari2, (1)UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, (2)UCLA Center for Autism Research & Treatment, Westwood, CA
Background: Children with ASD consistently experience more peer rejection, fewer reciprocal friendships, and less acceptance from their classroom peers than their typically developing classmates.  Little is known, however, about which children with ASD are at greatest risk for these poor outcomes, and therefore should receive more intensive social skills interventions.  

Objectives: This study characterized risk factors for friendship fragmentation and low connectivity in the social networks of children with ASD and their typical classroom peers over an 8-12 week period.  

Methods: Participants included 185 children with ASD in 155 mainstream general education classrooms in 59 schools (AIR-B Network). Associations were examined between social network at baseline (i.e., closeness, degree), age, IQ, classroom size, sex and the number of children with ASD within each classroom, and changes in social networks over time.  The average “closeness” measure of the student(s) with ASD was used to measure the connectivity with the rest of the classroom.  Using a general linear model, we predicted (1) baseline closeness using all demographic covariates, (2) change in closeness using baseline connectivity, baseline degree, and demographic covariates, and (3) final connectivity using only demographic covariates.  All models included second-order interactions, and a step-wise model selection automatically determined the final covariates with the maximal explanatory power.

Results: IQ and class size were the most important predictors of social connectivity at baseline. Children’s sex and classroom size predicted social fragmentation and social network connectivity 8-12 weeks later. Classroom size had a differential impact based on sex; girls remained more connected to peers when they were in classrooms of 21 students or more, while boys retained more connections with peers when they were in classrooms of 20 students or fewer. In earlier grade levels, boys with ASD were more connected to their peers than were girls with ASD, but this difference decreased with age and increased classroom size. Peer connections among children who were more connected at baseline diminished over time.

Conclusions: The social difficulties experienced by children with ASD may be mitigated by assigning females to larger classrooms and males to smaller classrooms. These results have implications regarding placement, intervention objectives, and ongoing school support aimed to increase the social success of children with ASD in public schools.