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Open Access Publications from the University of California

An Exploration of Joint Attention and Friendship in Preschool Children with Autism

  • Author(s): Chang, Ya-Chih
  • Advisor(s): Kasari, Connie
  • et al.

Children begin to show preferences for specific playmates as early as the first two years of life. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty making friends, even in elementary and middle school. However, very little is known about earlier friendships in children with autism such as preschool friendships. The current study examined friendships in preschool children with autism and explored how joint attention contributes to these friendships in mainstreamed settings. The participants were 31 mainstreamed preschool children (ages 2-5) with ASD. Two 15-minute school observations were conducted for each participant to capture participants' interactions with peers and adults during free play. Friendship was defined by three criteria: the children must have 1) at least 50% of their social initiation attempts responded to, 2) at least one interval of joint engagement, and 3) at least one positive affective exchange (adapted from Howes, 1983). Using this definition for friendship, the results indicated that 20% of the sample had friendships at school. Children with friends were more likely than children without friends to be jointly engaged with their peers during free play, and they used higher joint attention skills. Additionally, the study also found that adults were using far more behavioral management skills than any other strategies within the classrooms. Future studies may want to examine the effects of early interventions and/or teacher training on the development of friendships in preschool children with ASD within the school setting.

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