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Researcher: So when I'm with my friends, the sort of things that don't work are ...?
Participants frequently said things such as "It's really hard to explain" and "stuff like that." This supports Myles and Simpson's (1998) findings that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder may have difficulties with information presented orally. The following two extracts provide further examples of the difficulty these participants had with understanding the language:
Researcher: And what about those people who are not your friends? What are they like?
In general, all five participants struggled to describe their own understandings of friendship. Most interviews lasted less than half an hour and required much prompting and rewording of the questions from the interviewers. The interviewers allowed for extra processing time, as suggested by Myles and Simpson (1998); however, it was clear that the students had much difficulty speaking about these issues.
Description of What Is Not a Friend
Larry described people who are not friends as "people I don't know and people I don't like." When asked to elaborate, he said that some students were "sort of stuck up," explaining, "They usually for some reason don't like me straight away, pick on me and stuff. But that hasn't happened for about a year and a half." He also suggested that people who were not friends did not share his interests. Similarly, Morris also described people who are not friends as being "different" and said they "like other things."
When asked questions about what happens with peers to make things not go well (i.e., to make that person not a friend), the students reported some of their own experiences. Alice said that one thing that sometimes goes wrong is that friends "break promises." This reflects her rigidity in thinking, which is a characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorder(Szatmari, 1991).
John said that it was hard to explain but that things did not go well if students were annoying and behaving in a "stupid" way: "If they're not being nice to me anymore and they're getting really annoying and stuff like that.
Morris described fights and arguments with peers and said that other students sometimes were violent and got drunk. He stated that he did not feel comfortable around these people and therefore they were not his friends. Morris described some situations at school in which students influence what happens in the peer group.
Description of What Is a Friend
Similar Interests. A number of students described friends who had similar interests. This meant they could talk about the same things and be comfortable with each other. For example, Larry described a friend as "someone who I usually get along with quite well and who shares similar interests with me, and we generally have fun together." Larry also talked about the importance of interest to a friendship when he said, "They are my friends, their interest, their individuality I suppose, everything is important really." This focus on similar interests was reflected in Jack's understanding of friendship as well: "Friends are all really just good because at a POW [prisoner of war] camp, if they didn't have a mate back then, they wouldn't survive. Excuse me. I have an interest in POW camps and the Japanese. I read a lot of war history books."
Morris extended the idea of common interests to include feelings of being comfortable. He believed that friends are people "to have a good time with." When asked why he felt comfortable with these people, Morris stated, "You don't get nervous like they're going to criticize what you're going to say." He also preferred that they share his interests.
Activities with Friends. When asked what they do with their friends, the students discussed a variety of acitivies, including asking people to a birthday party and joining in with others on weekend activities. Alice had difficulty describing other types of activities she engaged in with her friends, although after quite a lot of prompting from the interviewer, she did mention skating and swimming but then could not discuss when this had last happened. Alice also described working on school projects with friends (although the assumption could be made that if they were working on school group work, the students may not be considered "friends" by most standards).
John, Larry, and Morris described a number of activities involving friends outside of school. For example, John said, "I'm a rider. I ride trail bikes. And I've got a friend that comes out riding with me. And, yeah, that's what we do 'cause it has a partner. Like a friend that comes out and does stuff with me." John's words indicate that he considers a friend someone to accompany him on his weekend activity, similar to a partner.
The students' focus of activities on interests reflects the need of some students to engage in a restricted range of activities. Larry described activities that enabled him to continue his intense interest in computers: "We talk about stuff like computers, Dungeons and Dragons. We play it at school and after school." Larry also ran Dungeons and Dragons meetings at school. Such an intense focus on one activity or interest is one of the defining characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Williams, 1995).
Description of an Acquaintance
You sort of know them, you talk to them sometimes, but you don't really do stuff. You just see them at school and that. And you talk to them. Things like if you see them through the day, you'd probably say hello or something, but that's it. You don't do nothing else out of school or anything.
Using Masquerading to Cope with Social Deficits
I've got the most friends. I'd say I'm probably the one that has the most friends. I don't think I really need to go up there [special education unit] because I think I'm more or less capable of doing things by myself.
Larry also described the vast number of friends he had at school. He said he could talk to anyone, and when the interviewer made the comment that the interview had not taken long, he replied, "That's because we didn't count how many friends I actually have." When asked how many, he said, "Nine ... at least fifteen. That's why it's hard to keep contact with them all." This "masquerade" is also demonstrated through the following dialogue with Larry:
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulty grasping the subtleties of how people relate to each other (Myles & Simpson, 1998) and understanding the perceptions of others (Myles & Southwick, 1999). As is highlighted in this study, they do not seem to comprehend the nature and reciprocity of friendship. Despite the fact that the participants named friends and discussed activities with friends, we are speculative about the true nature of these friendships. This point is similar to one made by Church et al. (2000), who revealed that although half of all the middle school-age students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in their study identified a best friend, this friend may change from time to time and the relationship could be viewed by others as superficial. For example, in this study, John revealed some problems with friendships, despite his insistence that he had "the most friends." John's apparent lack of insight into his social difficulties is typical of adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. A study of social problems and adaptive behavior among children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder indicated that although parents generally revealed significant concerns about their children's behavior and social skills, students did not rate themselves as having significant problems in these areas (Barnhill, Hagiwara, Myles, & Simpson, 2000). These results are consistent with the basic features of Autism Spectrum Disorder, including an inability to fully consider the perspectives of others and understand one's own feelings and behaviors (Myles & Simpson, 1998).
Some of the behavioral eccentricities associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder were also revealed in the study. The restricted range of interests found in persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder can take unusual or eccentric forms (Barnhill, 2001). An obsession with computers is particularly prevalent because socializing can be severely limited (Barnhill, 2001). Three of the five adolescents who participated in the study had "best" friendships that seemed to specifically revolve around computers and computer games such as Dungeons and Dragons . Church et al. (2000) also found that best friendships among teenagers with Autism Spectrum Disorder tend to revolve around very specific interests such as computers and video games.
Another of the core characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder, cognitive inflexibility, was made apparent by the comments of Alice, John, and Jack in descriptions of who is and who is not a friend. In fact, Alice refused to befriend students who broke school rules. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder cannot appreciate that in certain situations, rules may be bent or broken (Szatmari, 1991). Similar information regarding friendships was obtained in a study of experiences of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Church et al., 2000) in which it was noted that friendships among adolescents could dissolve if rules were broken.
The increasing levels of stress brought about by the characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder throughout the years of adolescence have been discussed by several authors. Church et al. (2000) noted in particular the anxiety of struggling with social expectations in the late middle school and high school years, and Gilchrist et al. (2001) hypothesized that this increasing difficulty during adolescence may result from the increasing pressure of social expectations on students at this time of development. This helps explain why adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder masquerade. It is evident that the high school years can represent a huge challenge for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder because they must cope with a larger, more diverse student population in which conformity and social competence are emphasised (Adreon & Stella, 2001), along with more rigorous academic work and more copious homework assignments. Students who lack the skills necessary to cope with these demands may experience significant problems and masquerade to hide inadequacies in skills or understanding.
Professionals need to be particularly aware of the possible difficulties experienced by young people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder in understanding the language used in discussions about friendships. Sometimes it is easy to presume a level of understanding of terms and concepts associated with friendships. Furthermore, a professional's concept of friendship and what is important in a friendship may be very different from those of young people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder. For example, it is evident from the interviews with these students that issues related to society and school rules are important considerations in who is a friend. Although professionals have the goal of helping young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder participate in socially acceptable ways, they also have an obligation to recognize and value different people's perspectives about friendship. There is a need for more qualitative research to develop a better understanding of the perceptions and interactions of children and adults who have Autism Spectrum Disorder. This type of research will add to the more clinical studies evident in most journals that focus on Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Reflection Exercise #5
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Topal, Z., Demir Samurcu, N., Taskiran, S., Tufan, A. E., & Semerci, B. (2018). Social communication disorder: a narrative review on current insights. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 14, 2039-2046.