Autistic children have been shown to have less complete definitions of friendships and higher levels of loneliness than their non-autistic peers. However, no known studies have explored sex differences in autistic children's understanding of friendships and reported loneliness across development. Autistic girls demonstrate higher levels of social motivation than autistic boys and appear to "fit in" with their peers, but they often have difficulty recognizing reciprocal friendships during middle childhood. As autistic girls develop a more complex understanding of friendship during adolescence, they may begin to redefine their friendships and experience heightened loneliness. Here, we explored how autistic and non-autistic boys and girls define the meaning of friendship and report feelings of loneliness across development. We also examined their perceptions of friendships and loneliness.
This mixed-methods study analyzed the transcribed clinical evaluations of 58 autistic children (29 girls) matched to 42 non-autistic children (21 girls) on age and IQ. Transcripts were coded for four categories that children used to define friendships-personality, companionship, dependability, and intimacy-and for reported loneliness. We then compared these codes across diagnosis, sex, and age. Content analyses were further implemented to gain a more holistic understanding of children's perceptions of friendships and loneliness.
Girls, regardless of diagnosis, were more likely than boys to refer to personality when defining the meaning of friendship, and the likelihood of referring to dependability and intimacy increased with age. Most children reported having at least one friend, though some autistic adolescents reported not having friends or were uncertain whether they had friends. While autistic and non-autistic boys and girls were equally likely to report feeling lonely at times, several autistic girls and boys reported being frequently lonely.
This study was a secondary data analysis. The standardized set of questions on the ADOS limited the amount of information that children provided about their friendships and perceptions of loneliness.
As with non-autistic children, autistic children acquire a more complex understanding of friendship throughout development. However, as children begin to prioritize dependability and intimacy in friendships, autistic adolescents may have difficulty developing friendships characterized by these constructs. Furthermore, the quantity and/or quality of autistic children's friendships may not be sufficient to alleviate loneliness.