Teens with autism often socially isolated

WASHINGTON U.-ST.LOUIS (US) — Teens with autism face major obstacles to social life outside of school, according to a new study that emphasizes the danger of limited peer relationships and the importance of group activities.

Hanging out with friends after school and on the weekends is a vital part of a teen’s social life. But for adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), social activity outside of school is a rarity, finds a new study published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

“We looked at data from a group of over 11,000 adolescents enrolled in special education,” says assistant professor Paul Shattuck, an autism expert at Washington University in St. Louis. The group included adolescents with ASDs, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and speech and language impairments.

“Out of this group, teens with an ASD were significantly more likely never to see friends out of school (43.3 percent), never to get called by friends (54.4 percent), and never to be invited to social activities (50.4 percent) when compared with adolescents from all the other groups.”

Shattuck says these findings show that the majority of adolescents with an ASD experience major obstacles to social participation.

“It appears that experiences with peers are more likely to occur one-on-one, and perhaps at home rather than in the community,” he says.

Limited or absent peer relationships can negatively influence health and mental health, especially during the teen years, Shattuck notes.

“One mechanism for promoting social relationships is by fostering participation with peers in group activities such as clubs, scouting, or sports,” Shattuck says.

“Only one-third of adolescents with an ASD are accessing such opportunities, and there is an obvious need for greater supports and services to promote community inclusion for this population,” he says.

The study found conversational impairment and low social communication skills were associated with a lower likelihood of social participation.

Adolescents from families with lower income had an elevated risk for no involvement in activities, but not an elevated risk for limited contact with friends. Age, sex, race, ethnicity, and school context factors were not significantly related to social participation.

Study co-authors are Gael I. Orsmond of Boston University, Mary Wagner of SRI International, and Benjamin P. Cooper of Washington University in St. Louis.

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