Measuring Social Networks and Perceived Social Support in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Development and Feasibility Pilot Study of an Online Tool
Social networks are complex, multi-dimensional, and difficult to measure. Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) receive support from their social network members to meet different academic, daily-living, and social demands. Understanding individual differences in adolescents with ASD’s social network structure (SNS) and how they perceive support provided by network members, offer a valuable perspective to help stakeholders plan more focused and effective support.
1) Develop an online questionnaire to characterise differences in SNS and perceived social support (PSS)
2) Explore the relationship between SNS and autism symptom severity
Previous research informed generation of items in a novel online questionnaire (delivered via Qualtrics) relating to SNS and PSS, which was tested in a feasibility pilot with 10 high-functioning adolescents with ASD (8M/2F) aged 17-19 years old (M;SD = 17.90;0.74). For SNS (i.e., size, composition, density), participants: 1) named up to 20 individuals they considered to be important to them and have been in contact with over the past three months (size); 2) stated their relationships with self (composition, i.e., family, friends, or “other”: teachers/support workers etc); 3) reported whether each pair of individuals they named knew and were in contact with each other (density). For PSS, participants reported the types, frequency, and perceived quality of support provided by each network member across academic, daily-living, and social domains (5 items/domain). Parent-reported Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ) measured autism symptom severity. Verbal and written feedback about the questionnaire was gathered. Preliminary analysis used Pearson’s correlations, though is constrained by the small sample size.
Participants found items to have good face validity, and took ~20 minutes to complete. A wide range of social network size (M(SD) = 11.2(6.49) people) and density (M(SD) =0.55(0.28)) were reported, and can be presented visually using Gephi (Figure 1). On average, participants named 3.8 family members, 5.9 friends/acquaintances, and 1.5 “other” members. Social network size was not associated with autism symptom severity (r = .127, p = .726). Networks of participants with higher autism symptom severity were associated with lower proportion of friends (r = -.689, p = .028), and higher proportion of “other” members (r = .760, p = .011). Higher network density was associated with smaller size (r =-.867, p = .001), and a higher proportion of family members (r = .69, p = .027). Of the network members reported to provide support for each participant, differences in frequency and quality of PSS were observed (Figure 2).
Participants reported good acceptability and feasibility of this novel online questionnaire that characterised individual differences in SNS and PSS. Participants perceived family members to provide better daily-living support, friends better social support, and “other” members better academic support, findings consistent with intuitive hypothesis suggesting that the online tool can help discriminate different social network dimensions. Feedback about item phrasing and streamlining have been incorporated for the next stage of the research. Stakeholders can benefit from considering individual differences in both SNS and PSS, and help social network members provide more focused support for adolescents with ASD.