Loneliness and Friendship Quality in School-Aged Children with ASD

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
A. Dominguez1, M. Mladenovic2, W. I. Shih3, R. Landa4, C. Lord5, B. King6 and C. Kasari7, (1)UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, Los Angeles, CA, (2)UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, (3)UCLA, Monrovia, CA, (4)The Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, MD, (5)Weill Cornell Medical College, White Plains, NY, (6)University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital, Seattle, WA, (7)University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Background: Deficits in social skills and poor peer relationships are characteristic of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Chamberlain, Kasari, & Rotheram-Fuller, 2006).  Adolescents with ASD often report more loneliness at school than their typically developing classmates (Bauminger, Shulman, & Agam, 2003).  Loneliness tends to be higher in older children than younger children (Burner, Orlich, Dean et al., submitted).  Previous studies have suggested that greater child-reported feelings of loneliness may be tied to poorer quality friendships or peer relationships at school (Bauminger & Kasari, 1999).  Further, children who are isolated or peripheral in their social network relative to classmates may exhibit more loneliness.  However, few studies have investigated the connection between loneliness in elementary-aged children with ASD and friendship quality or social connectivity to peers.

Objectives: This study aimed to 1) explore how quality of friendships and social connection with classmates are related to loneliness in children with ASD, and 2) compare self-reported ratings of loneliness in school-aged children with ASD to those of their typically developing peers.

Methods: Participants were 135 children with ASD (mean age = 8.13) and 239 typically developing classmates enrolled in mainstream classrooms.  The data were collected at four sites across the U.S. as part of a larger study conducted by the Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health (AIR-B).  Children with ASD completed three questionnaires: a) Loneliness Questionnaire (Asher, Hymel, & Renshaw, 1984) measured feelings of loneliness, b) Friendship Survey (Cairns & Cairns, 1994) analyzed social connectivity within the classroom using child nomination of classmates as friends, and c) Friendship Qualities Scale (FQS; Bukowski, Hoza, & Boivin, 1994) assessed aspects of companionship, conflict, help, security, and closeness within each child’s relationship to his or her best friend.  Typically developing peers from the same classrooms as the children with ASD also completed the Loneliness Questionnaire. 

Results: Comparing children with higher (n = 43) versus lower scores (n = 45) on the Loneliness Questionnaire, children with ASD who reported less loneliness also reported more companionship (p ≤ .05) and more closeness (p ≤ .05) in friendship quality with their best friend.  However, loneliness scores were not related to social network connectivity within the classroom.  No differences were found between loneliness scores of children with ASD and their typically developing peers.

Conclusions: While previous research indicates that adolescents with ASD report greater feelings of loneliness than their typically developing peers, our results suggest that this distinction may not be as salient among younger children with ASD.  Nevertheless, the child’s relationship quality with his or her best friend was found to be an early indicator of emerging feelings of loneliness.  This finding stresses the importance of targeting peer relationships at a young age in social interventions that aim to increase feelings of companionship and closeness in relationships between children with ASD and their peers.  Given the association between higher quality friendships and lower levels of loneliness, these interventions should begin at early ages in hopes of decreasing loneliness of children with ASD before they reach adolescence.