Examining the Relationship between Level of Autistic Traits, Social Anxiety, and Social Network Size Among First Year University Students
Objectives: Evaluate the relationship between level of autistic traits, social anxiety, SNS, network composition, and PSS among typically developing (TD) first-year university students. We hypothesised that: 1) higher levels of autistic traits will be related to smaller SNS; 2) this relationship will be mediated by co-occurring level of social anxiety; 3) bigger SNS will be related to higher levels of PSS; 4) networks of individuals with higher autistic traits will contain lower proportion of friends and higher proportion of family members.
Methods: First-year TD university students (N=92; 79F/13M; Age M = 18.21) completed online questionnaires during the first week of autumn semester. For SNS, participants named up to 20 individuals they considered important to them and with whom they had been in contact with over the past 3 months. Social network composition was indexed by type of relationship between self and the named individual (i.e., family, friends, teachers etc). Participants completed self-reported measures of autism traits (Autism Quotient-Short version (AQ-S)), social anxiety (Social Anxiety Scale –Adolescent version (SAS-A)), and PSS (Multidimensional Scale for Perceived Social Support (MSPSS)). Controlling for age and sex, we conducted partial correlation to assess the relationship between level of autistic traits, social anxiety, SNS, network composition, and PSS, and a mediation analysis to examine social anxiety as a mediator between level of autistic traits and SNS.
Results: Participants reported a large range of autistic traits, social anxiety, SNS, and PSS (Table 1). Consistent with hypotheses 1,2, and 3, a smaller SNS was associated with higher levels of autistic traits (r = -.212, p = .045), higher social anxiety (r = -.415, p = .000), and lower PSS (r =.233, p = .027). Higher level of autistic traits significantly correlated with higher social anxiety (r = .571, p = .000). Social anxiety fully mediated the relationship between level of autistic traits and SNS (Sobel’s Z = -3.169, p =. 002; Figure 1). Hypothesis 4 was not supported, no significant relationship between autistic traits and proportion of family/friends in social network were observed.
Conclusions: Findings show that autistic traits in first-year university students are negatively associated with SNS, and this association is mediated by social anxiety. SNS is positively related to how supportive students viewed networks. Higher level of autistic traits may be related to having fewer relationships in general, but not disproportionately fewer friends. Implications of the findings include recommendation that transitional interventions should aim to support students in overcoming anxiety about social situations.