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How Does ASD Affect Children's Perception of Friendships and Loneliness?

Individuals with high functioning autism spectrum disorders (ASD) make up a minority of the studies that are conducted to better understand this social learning disorder. Hence, understanding of loneliness and friendship experienced by individuals with high functioning ASD has been poorly understood in the past. It has been found that girls with ASD are significantly more prone to depression. Preliminary data conducted at the Marcus Autism Center (Atlanta) has found adolescent girls with high functioning ASD often have no reciprocal friendships in school. Two main approaches to social interaction have been used in as an attempt to understand social aspects of ASD: the cognitive approach, which suggests that autism changes a child’s perception of social interactions by limiting their ability to understand other’s thoughts and reason, and the affective theory, which suggests that children on the ASD spectrum may have difficulties creating emotional bonds with friends which may lead them to feel lonely. 

By comparing social-cognitive and affective measures of loneliness and friendship between children with high functioning ASD and children who do not have ASD, it was found that children on the ASD spectrum feel more loneliness and isolation when compared to neurotypical children. Furthermore, children with ASD reported feeling more lonely than children without ASD, and, on average, they rated their quality of friendship with their best friends lower than their peers. It is important to note that many of the children desired to have closer friendships. This may suggest that children with ASD may feel loneliness due to perceived lack of quality in their friendships, arguing against both the social-cognitive approach to ASD and the notion that children with ASD do not desire social relationships. Hence, this research supports the affective theory in that children with ASD report less of an emotional bond with their best friends. Parents and teachers may need to facilitate more meaningful emotional bonding activities between children with ASD and their friends in order to help children build stronger emotional relationships and reduce loneliness in high-functioning children with ASD. Using more verbal affirmations rather than body language can be very effective since it is harder for those with ASD to pick up nuances in human communication.  Future studies may be aimed at examining which activities help children with ASD most effectively create high-quality emotional bonds with their friends, which may prove beneficial for helping children to create meaningful friendships regardless of ASD.

Bauminger, N., & Kasari, C. (2000). Loneliness and friendship in high‐functioning children with autism. Child development, 71(2), 447-456.

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