Perceptions of Friendships in School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Friday, May 15, 2015: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Imperial Ballroom (Grand America Hotel)
L. Huynh1, Y. C. Chang2, W. Shih3 and C. Kasari4, (1)University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, (2)Semel Institute, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, (3)University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, (4)UCLA Center for Autism Research & Treatment, Westwood, CA

Developing meaningful friendships is challenging for many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with ASD want friendships, but their friendships are often of poor quality compared to their neurotypical peers (Bauminger, Shulman, & Agam, 2004).  Elementary-age children with ASD have reported fewer reciprocated friendships and are less engaged with their peers (Kasari et al., 2011). Little is known about these children’s perceptions of friendships and how that affects their social engagement with their peers in schools.


The current study examined the association between perceptions of friendships and social engagement in elementary school-aged children with ASD.


Participants included 141 children with ASD from the Greater Los Angeles area, ages 6 to 12 (M = 8.31, SD = 1.62), 89.4% were male, and from diverse ethnic backgrounds (28.5 % Caucasian, 10.9% African American, 21.2% Hispanic, 30.7% Asian, and 8.8% Other). Children were fully included in general education classrooms with IQs above 65.

The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) was used as a diagnostic tool for ASD and to measure perceptions of friendships. Three categories of friendships were created based on children’s response during the assessment: Play, Emotion, and None. Play was defined as friendships that were activity-based (e.g., “We play Star Wars and tag.”). Emotion was defined as friendships with an emotional or affective component (e.g., “You’re always there for one another.”). None was defined as children who didn’t report any friends or didn’t know the meaning of friendships.

The Playground Observation of Peer Engagement was used to measure engagement with peers on the playgrounds at school and was coded as percent time spent in solitary (e.g. play alone) or engaged (e.g. in games) during recess.


Descriptive analyses revealed only a small percentage (14.73%) of children described their friendships with an affective/ emotional aspect. The majority of the children describe their friendships as playing together, 82.97%. 4.21% of the children did not report any friends or understanding of friendship.

Independent samples t tests were used to examine the social engagement of children who perceived friendships as playing together. These children spent significantly less time in solitary at recess (M =16.79, SD = 19.50) than those who did not describe friendship as playing together (M= 36.27, SD =27.40), t (85) = 3.193, p = 0.002. Independent samples t-tests were also used to examine social engagement of children who perceived friendships with an emotional aspect and who did not. No significant differences were found between the two groups (p > .05).


Similar to previous studies, children’s definition of friendships was more activity-based and was limited in the emotional aspect of friendships. Interestingly, children who defined friendships as playing together were less isolated at school. This finding suggests that friendships for this population at this age may be more activity-based. Future intervention studies may want to consider using more activity- and play-based activities to foster meaningful relationships in schools.