Children with Asperger’s Disorder or High Functioning Autism (ASD) have been observed to initiate and reciprocate peer interactions much less frequently than language–matched children with developmental disabilities (Hauck, Fein, Waterhouse, & Feinstein, 1995
). Hauck et al. reported that the frequency of initiations to peers was unrelated to severity of autism, but was related to cognitive skills, including vocabulary and comprehension of affect. However, the observations were made in a special education classroom with few other peers initiating social interactions.
Placement in regular classrooms may provide peers who more reliably initiate social interactions. However, such placement has been a mixed blessing for children with ASD (Burack, Root, & Zigler, 1997
). On the one hand, placement in the regular classroom has been associated with increases in the complexity of the play of children with ASD and decreases in nonsocial activity when compared to how they behave in special education settings (Sigman & Ruskin, 1999
). On the other hand, perhaps because these children are aware of their social limitations, they report feeling lonelier and having poorer quality friendships (Capps, Sigman, & Yirmiya, 1996
) than their typically developing classmates (Bauminger & Kasari, 2000
). In the absence of additional treatment, placement together with typically developing children has not been shown to increase the social interaction of children with ASD (cf., McConnell, 2002
In addition to deficits in social interaction at school, most children with ASD also lack a best friend. Best friendships among typically developing children become stable by about the fourth grade (Frankel, 2010
; McGuire & Weisz, 1982
). Sigman and Ruskin (1999)
noted that only 27% of school-aged children with ASD had a best friend, compared with 41% of children with other developmental disabilities. Among children with ASD who reported having a best friend, the results of Bauminger et al. (2008)
suggest that children with ASD may show greater social benefit from best friendships with neurotypical children than with other children with disabilities. These “mixed” friendships were “…found to be more durable and stable and to exhibit higher levels of goal oriented social behaviors and positive affect. Friends in mixed dyads were more responsive to one another; showed higher levels of positive social orientation and cohesion, and demonstrated a more complex level of coordinated play than those in non-mixed dyads.” (p.1224)
Having a best friend may provide numerous advantages for the child with ASD. Among neurotypical children, having one or two best friends is of great importance to later adjustment, can buffer the impact of stressful events (Miller & Ingham, 1976
), and correlates positively with self-esteem and negatively with anxious and depressive symptoms (Burhmester, 1990
Best friends may promote the development of social competence: while conflicts with acquaintances can decrease subsequent social interaction, conflicts among best friends and their resolution are associated with subsequent increases on measures of social problem solving (Nelson & Aboud, 1985
). In a study looking at conflict resolution between neurotypical children, Nelson and Aboud found that two children who were best friends employed more explanations of their position, sought more information from each other, and were apt to arrive at a more mature solution than two children who were acquaintances. These results on neurotypical children are consistent with the findings of Bauminger et al. (2008)
for the best friendships of children with ASD in that best friendship promote more advanced social behavior in both populations.
Growth in social competence with age may be especially difficult for the child with ASD, since the natural development and transmission of necessary peer etiquette requires generally positive and sustained interaction with peers and learning from best friends. Continued isolation makes deficits in the knowledge of peer etiquette more obvious as the child with ASD gets older. Not surprisingly, as adults, many individuals with ASD consequently lack community connections and friendships that are taken for granted by typically developing persons (Baxter, 1997
Play dates (prearranged play sessions between only two children at the home of one of the children) are ubiquitous in our society among neurotypical elementary school-aged children (Ladd, 1992
; Parke & Bhavnagri, 1989
) and are thought to make an important contribution to the formation and maintenance of best friendships (Frankel, 2010
; Frankel & Myatt, 2003
; Gottman, 1983
). Reports of play date prevalence are consistent across studies: Newson and Newson (1976)
reported that 72% of upper middle class families arranged play dates for their children. Lougee and Kenniston (reported in Gottman, 1983
) found the prevalence of arranged play dates among six to eight year-olds to be about 55% of boys and 90% of girls. Ladd and Hart (1992)
reported a play date prevalence of 81%.
Parents of neurotypical children who invite their child’s peers into their homes have children who are invited to more play dates at peers’ homes (Ladd, Hart, Wadsworth, & Golter, 1988
), have children with a larger range of playmates and more consistent play partners (Ladd & Golter, 1988
) and have children with closer and more stable friendships (Krappman, cited in Ladd & Hart, 1992
). In order to be instrumental in promoting friendship between children, the frequency of play dates must be sufficient to maintain dependable contact (Frankel & Mintz, 2010
). In addition, the absence of conflict has also been found to be critical (Ladd, 1992
; Gottman 1983
) in promoting continuing reciprocity of invitations for playdates.
The purpose of the present study was to assess the relationship between play date frequency and amount of conflict, with peer interaction observed on the school playground. It was hypothesized that children with less conflict and more frequent play dates would have more friends at school and this would be reflected in more positive peer interaction on the playground. Measures of general and specific social and intellectual functioning were included in the analysis to account for these factors in relationships obtained between play dates and school playground behavior.