Predictors of social success in children with autism

“There is a common misconception that all children with ASD experience negative social outcomes and require intense intervention supports in schools. While this may be true for many children with ASD, there are others who are well liked and socially connected.” (Locke et al., 2017)

Many children with autism experience social successes. Why is that? What is it about these kids, about what they’re doing or the environment they’re in, that makes them successful?

First, the authors of this study had to define success. So, what’s a “socially successful” kid? They chose to define it as one who:

  • demonstrates “more joint attention with peers during unstructured school periods (recess and lunch)…”
  • is rated by peers to have a relatively strong role within the classroom social environment; this is kind of like “popularity” except was measured by both individual and peer group popularity

Working with that definition, they looked at 148 kids with autism, ages 5–12, who spent at least half their day in a general education environment. Some things they found:

  1. Over half the children had “notable success on at least one social outcome” (so one of the two bullet points, above)
  2. Autism severity impacted social success; IQ didn’t
  3. Social success was easier for the younger kids, and harder for the older kids (and this finding is consistent with other studies, e.g. Rotherman-Fuller et al., 2010); more specifically, being a member of a peer group starts to decrease around age eight.
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So the biggest take-homes for SLPs may be to note that many children with autism do have plenty of social success. Not all kids with autism need social support or goals! Then, also, that older elementary children tend to have less social success than the younger children. This doesn’t exactly tell us what to do with intervention, though. Does knowing that kids tend to have more social difficulties as they get older mean we should treat early to prevent it, or later when it’s really needed? Who knows... but we certainly shouldn't expect to "graduate" kids from their social goals as they age. Unfortunately, the social landscape changes substantially from early to late elementary ages.

What do the authors suggest we do? Again, this isn’t a treatment article, so nothing on treatment can be concluded from this study. But they do point to some options, such as intervention studies on SLPs putting together clubs and social groups (e.g. Kasari et al., 2016).

Note: This article appeared not in one of our regularly-covered journals, but one “outside” our field.  

Locke, J., Williams, J., Shih, W., Kasari, C. (2017). Characteristics of socially successful elementary school-aged children with autism. The Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 58(1), 94–102.