The Extent and Nature of Conflict within the Peer Relationships of Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
F. R. Sedgewick1, V. Hill2 and E. Pellicano1, (1)Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), UCL Institute of Education, University College London, London, United Kingdom, (2)Psychology and Human Development, UCL Institute of Education, London, United Kingdom
Background:  Friendships are a crucial part of our development as social individuals, from childhood through to adulthood. Conflict within these relationships is a ubiquitous phenomenon and can offer insight into the extent and nature of social relationships, particularly the maintenance of friendships. While there has been a great deal of research on autistic children and adolescents’ friendships and on the conflict that occurs outside of friendships (in the form of bullying), to our knowledge there is no research on the conflict experienced by autistic adolescents within their friendships and peer relationships.

Objectives:  This study sought to understand the extent and nature of the conflict experienced within the relationships of adolescents on the autism spectrum, using interview and questionnaire-based methods. We also investigated the relationship between adolescents’ social awareness and the degree of conflict within their friendships.

Methods:  Data collection is ongoing. Nine adolescents with autism, aged 11–16 years, have taken part. Participants completed an in-depth semi-structured interview about their friendships, in addition to the Friendship Qualities Scale (FQS), a test of perceived best-friendship quality (which included a Conflict subscale), the Revised Peer Experiences Questionnaire (RPEQ), a measure of aggressor/victim status in peer interactions, and The Awareness of Social Inference Test (TASIT), a test of social awareness.

Results:  Adolescents on the autism spectrum reported many conflicts with their friends, although these were often unresolved due to the adolescents’ focus on their friends’ actions rather than underlying motivations. Furthermore, we found that adolescents with greater social awareness had a lower level of conflict within their best-friendship (r = -.68, p < .05). The effect was similar in direction and strength for two aspects of social awareness (as measured by the TASIT), including sarcasm-awareness (r = -.55, p < .05) and lie-awareness (r = -.35, p < .05). Finally, higher conflict levels were associated with a greater likelihood of aggressor-status in peer interactions (r=.50, p < .05).

Conclusions: These results suggest that conflicts within the friendships of adolescents on the autism spectrum often go unresolved because they fail to focus on the underlying cause of the conflict. These qualitative data were supported by the data from questionnaires, which showed that those who are more aware of others’ motivations were more able to negotiate their interactions with peers (i.e. without conflict) and, as a result, more likely to maintain their friendships. These findings highlight the importance of managing conflict within friendships with peers, which might be a limiting factor in autistic adolescents’ ability to both obtain and sustain social relationships and should be an important target for intervention.