Characteristics of Adolescent Girls with ASD Participating in a Social Skills Intervention

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 3, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
M. Ferland1, B. L. Ncube2, J. M. Bebko3, N. Bardikoff4, M. Thompson4, M. Spoelstra4, J. Read5 and S. Molica4, (1)York University, Toronto, ON, CANADA, (2)Psychology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada, (3)York University, Toronto, ON, Canada, (4)Autism Ontario, Toronto, ON, Canada, (5)Autism Ontario, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
Background: Research on the social relationships of adolescent girls with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is limited. However, girls with ASD may have some social advantages over boys. For example, Kreiser and White (2014) suggests that social and cultural influences encouraging girls to be more empathic and nurturing can have an impact on the expression of ASD characteristics in females, as well as on how the behaviour of females with ASD is perceived by others. Cook, Ogden, and Winstone (2018) found that adolescent girls were able to “mask” their ASD symptoms by successfully adopting the tone and mannerisms of other neurotypical girls to fit in. However, while “masking” provided the girls with a superficial social competence, the girls continued to experience social isolation and peer conflict. Overall, despite some perceived advantages over boys, girls with ASD continue to struggle with social relationships (Fogo & Webster, 2017).

With the preponderance of males in the ASD population, less is known about specific outcomes for girls with ASD following social skills interventions. The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relationship Skills (PEERS) is a 14-weeks manualized social skills training intervention for adolescents and young adults, which includes a teen and a parent component occurring simultaneously.

Objectives: The present study examines sex differences in the outcomes of adolescents with ASD who participated in the PEERS program through Autism Ontario.

Methods: 33 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 (M = 14.90, SD = 1.44) and 80 boys between the ages of 13 and 18 (M = 14.75, SD = 1.45) who participated in the PEERS program in Ontario between Winter 2015 and Summer 2018 were included. Parents and children complete several measures before and after participation in the program. Measures evaluated social skills knowledge, friendship quality, and social anxiety.

Results: At baseline, parents of girls rated their children as having significantly greater social anxiety than parents of boys; t(51.46) = -3.035, p = .004. Following intervention, both groups demonstrated decreases in social anxiety and, while parents of girls continued to rate their children as having greater social anxiety, the differences between the groups were no longer significant (p = .182). At baseline, girls tended to report less conflict between themselves and their “best friend” when compared to boys; however, this difference was not statistically significant (p = .089). Differences in how girls and boys rated conflict in their relationships with their best friends were maintained following participation in the PEERS program (p = .086). Lastly, adolescents demonstrated similar social skills knowledge at baseline (p = .553); however, girls demonstrated significantly greater improvements in social skills knowledge following the PEERS intervention compared to boys; t(57.15) = -2.687, p = .009.

Conclusions: Our results support the idea that adolescent girls and boys with ASD differ in their social experiences and skills, and, importantly, they may also differ in their response to a time-limited social skills intervention. A more refined approach, with information individualized for boys or girls may be warranted.