Autism and Socialization

A defining feature of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is the lack of or inability to engage appropriately in social situations with peers. Children diagnosed with autism may play alone, avoid talking or engaging with peers, or even seem disinterested with things peers show enjoyment with. Foundations for Growing aims at increasing the repertoire of knowledge and giving children the tools to be able to engage with peers in a variety of situations about various topics that their peers would be interested in as well. Once children have gained this building block of knowledge they can begin generalizing the skills of engaging in conversation about the themes learned with parents, family members, and peers.

Understanding social interaction is important as it relates to all parts of an individual’s life, ability to make lasting friendships, understanding friendship boundaries, ability to engage meaningfully with new individuals, and ability to engage socially in the workforce. It may seem quite easy as adults now that making friends was a part of growing up and it occurred naturally but as children diagnosed with autism it can seem a very daunting and uncomfortable situation. Making friends has been broken down to a science by researchers at many universities and psychologists around the world but to give a quick review of some research done by Erin Rotheram-Fuller, Ph.D. , Connie Kasari, Ph.D. , Brandt Chamberlain, Ph.D., and Jill Locke, M.A. finding the comparison of social interaction between children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their typical peer counterparts across a variety of grades. Researchers found that across all grades it was evident that children with ASD were typically less engaged than their peers but further delved into the notion of friendships and social networks (circles of friends) through a survey. There was little distinction between social integration of autism spectrum disorder and typical peers across early grades but as the ages of students increased the social integration of the children with autism spectrum disorder decreased and differences of social interaction became evident. Researchers surveyed acceptance and rejection by peers and asked students to identify their closest and best friends. Younger children had high reciprocity of the same friend groups but in older children the reciprocity decreased meaning that children with ASD and their peers named different people as their close or best friends. Researchers believe that this difference in reciprocity may stem from the idea that as children increase in age their understanding of friendship changes to more intimate and meaningful relationships, searching for likeminded peers, and often less tolerant of obvious difference hence the common scene of cliques in schools. At younger ages children are simply looking for peers to play and are much more inclusive. Children with autism may not have a clear understanding of what a friendship is, what it entails as dynamics change with age, they are no longer simply playing with toys but engaging in activities or discussions about topics and thus more difficult to express themselves and communicate effectively. It was found that children with autism spectrum disorder who were included in a mainstream classroom were more socially engaged than those who were not as they were more aware of social situations and exposed to cultural phenomena their peers enjoyed (Fuller et al.).

Researchers at the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Center for Asperger’s Research of the University of California studied ways to encourage social integration for children with Asperger’s (as of 2013 DSM-5 has changed criteria) although skills can be applied to children across the spectrum. It was found as a result of the research and review of similar inclusion models children with autism spectrum disorder were most successful in social engagement in a natural environment (ex. school, camp) and engaged with typical peers individually over commonly enjoyed activities. Researchers created school clubs that were focused around activities or games that the children with autism spectrum disorder preferred and assisted the child with inviting peers to join. Initially during observation the children with ASD sat alone and did not engage with peers but when the intervention was in place (beginning the club, supporting involvement in game or activities) all children with autism spectrum disorder showed increased social interaction with peers although initiation of comments or questions were less than typical peers they chose to continue engagement with those peers in the “club” even after their designated club time (Koegel et al.).

This research model of creating inclusive environments surrounding preferred themes for a child with autism can create the foundation for developing social engagement. It provides all children both with and without autism a common ground to build a rapport and further develop a relationship that translates into further relationships in the future. Parents can facilitate this process similarly by setting up peer play dates in which they invite children close in age to their child and encourage play. Initially parents may need to help direct the conversation by helping their child make comments, asking their child or the peers opinion, or helping their child ask their peer questions. Another helpful tip to increase success with the child’s engagement is to have a conversation with the peer prior to the peer play in which the parent can explain that if the child with autism does not respond, seems distracted, engages in various behavior to continue trying engaging and that it is ok to try and get his or her attention by saying their name, repeating the question or comment, etc. These small preparations might help the peer feel more comfortable and therefore increase odds that they will continue initiating with the child. Overall, the social interactions and relationships take time to develop and learn the skills to maintain them overtime in generalized situations but with early intervention and family and peer support children can develop the appropriate skills to be successful in the world.

Rotheram-Fuller, E., Kasari, C., Chamberlain, B., & Locke, J. (2010). Social Involvement of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Elementary School Classrooms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines,51(11), 1227–1234. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02289.x


Koegel, L. K., Vernon, T. W., Koegel, R. L., Koegel, B. L., & Paullin, A. W. (2012). Improving Social Engagement and Initiations Between Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Peers in Inclusive Settings. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 14(4), 220-227. doi:10.1177/1098300712437042