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Section 12
Peer Social Skills in Adolescents
with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Part II

Question 12 | Test | Table of Contents

Understanding of Concepts or Language Regarding Friendships
Overall, there was a lack of in-depth discussion from all participants about the issues related to friendship. This meant that the interviewers had to use prompts frequently to solicit students' thoughts about friendship. One participant (Alice), had particular difficulty answering the questions, so the interviewer posed them as sentences for her to complete, rather than as questions. This was preferable to Alice sitting in silence.

Researcher: So when I'm with my friends, the sort of things that don't work are ...?
Alice: Having arguments like talking about, like worrying about something that isn't--that's nothing. Arguments over nothing.
Researcher: So there's not really an issue there, it's an argument over nothing? And when I'm with my friends, some other things that don't work are ...?
Alice: (long pause with no answer)
At other times this difficulty seemed to be due to a student's not understanding the words used in the question. For example, in this part of the interview, John did not know the meaning of the word acquaintance :
Researcher: Tell me about what you understand about people who are acquaintances.
John: Acquaintances--do you know what that means?

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?
Larry: They're ... well ... define "not friends."
Researcher: That's what I want you to do for me. Describe what you think "not friends" means.
Researcher: If you could look into the future, what would your friends be like?
Jack: I don't know. They would be nice, friendly and nice.
Researcher: What do you mean by "friendly"?
Jack: I don't know.
Researcher: What things would you like to keep the same with friends?
Jack: All the aspects of friendship.

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
The students were better able to describe a number of characteristics of peers who would not be friends, for instance, "students who are sent to the office" (Alice); students who are "rude, inconsiderate, and thieves" (John); and "the type you wouldn't talk to, never communicate with" (Jack). When asked what people who are not friends would be doing that would make him not want to be around, Jack replied, "Annoying kind of stuff ... hang around you for too long." In addition, Jack described the mean and unfriendly behavior of some students who were not his friends. He stated, "They'll put me in a situation--like I say something and then they'll say, 'Ha! Just joking!'"

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.
Interviewer: Are there other things that happen at school that make it difficult for you to get on with other people?
Morris: No. I don't know. I suppose it's the other friends that I hang out with that aren't that popular.... They just don't like me hanging out with some of them or stuff like that.
Interviewer: So, what do they say?
Morris: I don't know. Just tell them to leave and that I don't really want them to leave.... They just tell them to leave and all that. They're friends and all--I don't know.

Description of What Is a Friend
The students had various descriptions of what friends are, but once again they generally found it hard to explain. Alice revealed her inability to fully comprehend the nature of friendship when she described friends as "the ones that could help you and keep in touch" and said, "You grow up with them." Despite the fact that she sought to discuss skating with some of her peers and expressed an interest in going skating with her friends, she failed to reduce her social isolation: "I don't think I have friends ... not really." In comparison, John stated that a person's friends should be people he or she respects, and Jack said that friends are people one has known for a long time. Jack also described some characteristics of friendship: "Trusting them, not turning their back on you sort of stuff and not fighting with me and my friends ... sticking up for each other ... keeping each other's secrets and promises." He said his friendships go well when he and his friends "do the same things.

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.
Larry also brought up the importance of friends' having not only similar interests but similar personalities: "They're really nice people who have got the same interests as me.... They're usually weirdos as my parents call them. Yes, so my friends are a bunch of freaks, as they say, and so am I.

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.
Jack seemed to take delight in describing "inappropriate" activities he and a friend took part in.
Jack: We played kick the football. We played other outdoor games as well like T-square, or there's another game like handball. This is what you shouldn't do--kill insects.
Researcher: Did you?
Jack: Yeah. Me and my friends did that, used to do naughty things.
Researcher: So, you were doing things together?
Jack: Yeah, we killed them. One of my friends and I had a magnifying glass and the sun was reflecting from it, pssst! Smoke coming from the ant. Yeah, barbequed ant.

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
We asked the participants to describe their perceptions of the term acquaintance. Alice made an attempt to describe her understanding of this word after quite a lot of thinking: "I don't really know what's different, but I think there may be, like they don't match your personality, like I'm quiet and some of them are loud, like they don't match." Alice thought that differences in personality would affect her friendships with her peers. In contrast, John suggested that an acquaintance would know less about him, and Jack explained that he would not mix with people who are just acquaintances. He said, "You don't speak to them as much as you do with your real friends. You don't catch up as much.... The ones you speak to at school are acquaintances--I just say, 'Hi.' " Larry agreed with this when he explained that "they're the people who I just meet with a few times, just people I know basically." Similarly, Morris provided a description of his understanding of the term:

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.

The participants' descriptions of an acquaintance indicate an understanding that can be described in unemotional terms. This is contrasted with the lack of qualitative or emotive language in the participants' descriptions of a friend. It seemed much easier for the participants to describe an acquaintance.

Using Masquerading to Cope with Social Deficits
The last theme that emerged from the study data was how these students cope with their social deficits. One way this occurred is through masquerading , a characteristic that was also described in Carrington and Graham's (2001) study. High school students with Autism Spectrum Disorder may be aware that they do not fit in and try to mask their deficits. John believed that he had many friends and showed evidence of masquerading in the following quote:

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:
Researcher: If you could just have perfect friendships, what would those friendships be like?
Larry: The ones I've got now.
Researcher: Just like now. That's lovely, isn't it?
Larry: And no more ...
Researcher: And no more. You have enough friends?
Larry: Yes, my phone's already going "ring, ring" and then I pick up, "Hello," and it's like, "Gosh, not you again!" And then, "ring, ring" ... "ring, ring" ... Gosh! ... And my phone bill's already far too high.
Larry's stories about the numbers of friends and his interactions with them is a way of masking his communication and interaction difficulties with his peers. This need for interaction with friends is masked by his fictional account of an extensive list of friends.

Social dysfunction is perhaps the single most defining and handicapping feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Rogers, 2000). Friendships may be desired, but the concept of reciprocity and sharing of interests and ideas inherent in friendship is not often understood (Filipek et al., 1999). The adolescents' words in this study indicate a lack of insight into what constitutes friendship and a general difficulty in using and understanding the language to describe friendship issues.

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.

We conducted this descriptive study with no intent of generalizing the results to all adolescents who have Autism Spectrum Disorder. Nonetheless, the words and perspectives shared by these teenagers indicate perspectives of friendship that others with Autism Spectrum Disorder may well share. The study specifically provides examples of understandings and perceptions of what is a friend, what is not a friend, and what is an acquaintance; the language difficulties associated with these issues; and data illustrating the concept of masquerading to fit in with peers.

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.

Carrington, S., Templeton, E., & Papinczak, T. (2003). Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome and Perceptions of Friendship. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18(4), 211-218.
(AS is now ASD per DSM-5.)

The box directly below contains references for the above article.

Personal Reflection Exercise #5
The preceding section contained information about the results and discussion of adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder and perceptions of friendship study.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Predictors of Individual Differences in Minimally
Verbal Peer Communication Exchanges
following Peer-Oriented Social Intervention

- Kedar, M., & Bauminger-Zviely, N. (2023). Predictors of individual differences in minimally verbal peer communication exchanges following peer-oriented social intervention. Autism research : official journal of the International Society for Autism Research, 16(1), 230–244.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Mendelson, J. L., Gates, J. A., & Lerner, M. D. (2016). Friendship in school-age boys with autism spectrum disorders: A meta-analytic summary and developmental, process-based model. Psychological Bulletin, 142(6), 601–622.

Peterson, C., Slaughter, V., Moore, C., & Wellman, H. M. (2016). Peer social skills and theory of mind in children with autism, deafness, or typical development. Developmental Psychology, 52(1), 46–57.

Roper, S. O., Allred, D. W., Mandleco, B., Freeborn, D., & Dyches, T. (2014). Caregiver burden and sibling relationships in families raising children with disabilities and typically developing children. Families, Systems, & Health, 32(2), 241–246.

Skorich, D. P., Cassidy, L. M., Karimi, K. S., & Haslam, S. A. (2021). Self-categorization and autism: Exploring the relationship between autistic traits and group homogeneity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.

Tannoia, D. P., & Lease, A. M. (2021). The relation of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity to peer dislike: An examination of potential mediators. School Psychology. Advance online publication.

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 treatment14, 2039-2046.

Why do adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder masquerade? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 13
Table of Contents