Qualitative Aspects of an Unstructured Unfamiliar Peer Interaction in Higher Functioning Children with Autism and Their Typically Developing Peers
Despite average or above average cognitive abilities, higher functioning individuals with autism (HFA) display social deficits that significantly impact their adaptive functioning. These deficits are particularly apparent when children and adolescents with HFA interact with unfamiliar peers and can impact their ability to establish lasting and meaningful relationships (Bellini, 2004). While quantitative analyses reveal important information about the relations between social skills and outcomes, a qualitative approach offers a distinctive perspective on the unfolding of social interactions.
The aims of this study were: 1) to use a unique qualitative approach to examine aspects of an unstructured conversation between children with HFA and unfamiliar, typically developing (TD) peers on the dyad level, and 2) to examine differences in qualitative aspects between individuals with HFA and their TD peers.
Children with HFA (N = 39, 34 males, Mage = 13.85, SD = 2.80) were paired with a gender-, age-, and IQ- matched TD peer (N = 39, 34 males, Mage = 13.56, SD = 2.01). Each dyad was given five minutes to “get to know each other.” Interactions were transcribed and coded by two researchers, who have established reliability (κ = .63 - .98). We developed a novel coding scheme to assess qualitative aspects of these conversations. First, transcripts were segmented into personal topics (i.e., “I’m in tenth grade.”) or factual topics (i.e., “So five minutes, that’s pretty short.”). A “turn” was defined as each sentence said during the conversation that offered unique content. Each turn was classified into one of four content areas: self-attributes, school, family, or friends. Finally, each turn was also classified as either appropriate or inappropriate for a social interaction in which one is first getting to know someone.
Preliminary analyses on 22 participants (11 dyads) revealed that at the dyad level, there was a mean of 12.91 segments initiated (SD = 3.48). The majority of segment topics were self attributes (62%), followed by school (11%), family (7%), friends (7%), task-based factual (7%), and general factual (6%).
Individuals with HFA initiated more segment topics than TD participants, t(20) = 3.91, p = .001. In addition, participants with HFA initiated significantly more factual topics, t(19) = 2.79, p = .012, and TD initiated significantly more personal topics, t(19) = 2.79, p = .012. Participants with HFA had a significantly higher proportion of inappropriate turns than did TD participants, t(12) = 3.073, p = .01.
During an unstructured opening conversation, children and adolescents with HFA tend to initiate changes in topics more than their TD peers, but their segment topics and turns in the conversation are not always appropriate to first getting to know someone. Future studies should combine qualitative and quantitative methods to examine inappropriate comments as predictors of parent-reported social competence in participants with HFA. By combining both methods, we can determine how content of opening conversations relates to social skills deficits in HFA and ultimately how this impacts social relationships between individuals with HFA and their peers.