Social difficulties are a core feature of autism — but under the right circumstances, some children on the spectrum can be socially successful at school1.
In 2011, researchers reported that children with autism tend to linger on the edges of social groups at school and have fewer friendships than those without the condition2.
“I called that my ‘sad paper.’ I hated it,” says lead researcher Connie Kasari, professor of human development and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kasari’s new work takes a different tack. “We said, ‘Let’s flip it. Let’s talk about the kids who looked great. What factors predict their success?’”
The new findings reveal that large class size and opportunities to connect with classmates may help children with autism gain a foothold in their school’s social network. The study appeared in September in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology.
Kasari and her colleagues re-examined data collected during their previous studies of 148 children with mild features of autism, and all of their classmates. The children with autism were all verbal and attended mainstream elementary school classrooms in the southwestern United States. This time around, the researchers looked more carefully at the minority of children with autism who were part of social groups at school to determine what accounted for their success.
“It’s a wonderful example of a study that starts with strengths instead of deficits — which is too rare in autism research, particularly around social issues,” says Laura Anthony, associate director of the Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the work.
In both studies, Kasari’s team used the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) to confirm each child’s autism diagnosis. The researchers also recorded each child’s intelligence quotient, age and sex, along with the number of students in her classroom.
Friends and foes:
The team looked at two measures of social success: how often a child played with others at recess and integration into the school’s social network, as judged by teachers and peers. Teachers rated each child’s social standing with other students, as well as behavior in the classroom. All of the students wrote down the names of their friends and foes at school, circled their top three friends and put a star next to their best friend. They also listed students who spend time together.
The researchers defined social success as spending more than half of recess interacting with peers or occupying a central spot in the classroom’s social network — say, ranking high on the teacher’s popularity score, being named as a friend by multiple people or being included on lists of students that spend time together.
About 32 percent of the children with autism met the recess criterion, and 43 percent met the social network standard; 17 percent of these children met both bars.
The most socially successful children with autism came from the largest classes and, not surprisingly, showed the strongest communication skills and the fewest repetitive behaviors on the ADOS. The findings suggest that schools can boost the social success of children with autism by putting them in large classes, which maximizes the number of familiar faces they can approach on the playground. The results also hint at the importance of early interventions that reduce autism severity, Kasari says.
Children older than 8 years were less integrated into the school’s social network than those aged 5 to 7. This underscores the challenge of making and keeping friends as social interactions become more complex, Kasari says.
The researchers also noted that children with autism are most likely to occupy a prime spot in the social network when they have ample opportunities to interact with typical classmates.
Programs that teach typical students how best to engage and interact with children who have autism may also help build the social circles of those on the spectrum, Anthony says. The researchers suggest in the study that “a successful inclusion model would start by training the peers, not the child with autism.”
Kasari and her colleagues plan to use the findings as a springboard for developing school-based interventions aimed at boosting social success.