Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are defined by impairments in social interaction and communication, as well as the presence of behaviors, interests, and activities that are repetitive and restrictive (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000
). Although it is assumed that these core symptoms impact the daily lives of individuals with an ASD, there are few studies that examine the ways in which a person’s life is shaped by living with an ASD. In this study, we examined the daily lives of adolescents with an ASD. Whereas previous time-use studies on children and adolescents with disabilities have utilized interviews to capture qualitative information (e.g. Buttimer and Tierney, 2005
; Law et al., 2006
), in this study we used a time diary methodology to provide detailed quantitative information about how adolescents with an ASD spend their free time.
ASDs are lifelong disabilities (APA, 2000
), and adolescence can be a time of increasing challenges for individuals with an ASD and their families (Seltzer et al., 2004
). Specifically, adolescents with an ASD have been reported to experience difficulties in establishing or maintaining peer relationships, participating in social and recreational activities, and often report having few friendships (Bauminger and Kasari, 2000
; Orsmond et al., 2004
). We have very little knowledge about the ways that adolescents with an ASD spend their free time, and the potential effects of their time use on their development. This information is needed to provide more helpful treatment recommendations and services for adolescents with an ASD.
Previous research examining the time use of children and adolescents with physical disabilities and those with intellectual disabilities indicates that children and adolescents with disabilities participate more frequently in dependent, solitary, and family-oriented activities (Brown and Gordon, 1987
). They less frequently engage in social activities (Buttimer and Tierney, 2005
); energy-consuming activities, such as household work or getting out the house (Brown and Gordon, 1987
); and activities that are structured or require preplanning such as organized sports, music lessons or youth groups (Law et al., 2006
). Moreover, their lower levels of engagement in a variety of activities at a younger age can lead to truncated activity patterns, whereby the skills needed and opportunities available for participation in a variety of activities become increasingly difficult as children get older (Brown and Gordon, 1987
Our first goal in this study was to describe how adolescents with an ASD spend their time, in terms of what activities they engage in (specifically during discretionary time) and with whom they are doing these activities. Data from typically developing adolescents in the United States indicate that they spend around a half of their waking hours per day in free-time activities, with a large part of the time spent socializing with peers and friends (Csikszentmihalyi and Larson, 1984
; Larson, 2001
). In comparison,Hilton et al. (2008)
investigated out-of-school activity participation of children with high-functioning ASD (HFASD) and found that children with HFASD participated in social activities less frequently than typically developing children. In light of the lifelong social and communication impairments and behavior problems associated with ASDs, we anticipated that adolescents with an ASD would spend less time engaged in activities that involve socialization. We were interested in what activities possibly took place instead of social activities.
We also sought to identify the factors associated with time spent in specific activities by adolescents with an ASD. Individual characteristics have been reported to be associated with adolescent time use in typically developing adolescents. Older adolescents participate in a greater variety of activities. For example, they talk to friends, listen to music, and ‘hang out’ with friends more frequently, while younger adolescents spend more time watching television (Timmer et al., 1985
). Older adolescents also spend less time with family, and more time alone or with peers (Larson, 2001
Adolescent time use also varies by gender. Generally, males spend more time watching television (Larson et al., 1989
), using a computer (Subrahmanyam et al., 2001
), and doing active sports and outdoor activities (Robinson and Bianchi, 1997
), and less time in personal and household maintenance tasks (Duckett et al., 1989
), and socializing (Raffaelli and Duckett, 1989
) than females. We were interested in whether such patterns held for adolescents with an ASD.
In addition to adolescent characteristics, family characteristics also are related to adolescents’ time allocation, although the findings are not consistent. Generally, television viewing occurs more frequently among children and adolescents with low socioeconomic status (SES) than those with high SES (Anderson et al., 2001
).Timmer et al. (1985)
also found that children of single mothers were more likely to help out with household work and spent more time watching television than children from two-parent households. Adolescents with an employed mother spend more time on household tasks than those with an unemployed mother (Cogle et al., 1982
). Also, adolescents in families with high SES spend less time alone than those with low SES (Timmer et al., 1985
). However, Robinson and Bianchi (1997)
found no relationship between adolescents’ time allocation and parental employment status, maternal marital status, or adolescents’ birth order.
The third aim of our study was to examine whether the activities that adolescents with an ASD engaged in had subsequent effects on their development in terms of their autism symptoms. From an ecological perspective, adolescents’ everyday activities are integral in shaping their development (Larson, 2001
). Time-use studies with typically developing adolescents have shown that experiences in a variety of activities and settings help to shape the development of adolescents’ skills, attitudes, and behavior patterns (e.g. Larson, 2001
), and that different activities provide different developmental benefits and liabilities in adolescence. For example, engagement in social activities offers opportunities for adolescents to exchange their thoughts with friends, to increase their self-understanding, and to practice reciprocal interactions (Larson and Kleiber, 1993
). Interacting with peers also is associated with more prosocial and cooperative behaviors (Wentzel et al., 2004
). Research on adolescent media use indicates that high levels of television viewing, the activity that adolescents do most frequently in their free time, can be associated with high rates of antisocial or aggressive behavior (Mahoney and Stattin, 2000
Activity partners are another important consideration. Typically, adolescents spend less time with family compared with time alone or with friends (Csikszentmihalyi and Larson, 1984
). The developmental implications of family and peer time depend on the types of interactions that take place during this period of time and the nature of the relationships within which these interactions take place (Larson, 2001
). Similarly, spending time alone can have both positive and negative consequences, but no adolescent benefits from extreme amounts of time spent alone (Larson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1980
We posed the following three research questions in the present study, with a focus on discretionary time use: (1) How do adolescents with an ASD spend their time, and are there differences between weekday and weekend time use? (2) Do time-use patterns of adolescents with an ASD, including the activities they engage in and the companions with whom they do activities, vary by their demographic characteristics (age, gender, and level of abilities), family characteristics (SES, parental educational and occupational status, mother’s marital status, and family size) and severity of their autism symptoms (including language and social impairments, and behavior problems)? and (3) What are the longitudinal effects of time-use patterns on the development of adolescents with an ASD, specifically on autism symptoms in terms of impairment in language, reciprocal social interaction and maladaptive behaviors?
Based on the findings of children and adolescents with disabilities (e.g. Brown and Gordon, 1987
), we expected that adolescents with an ASD would engage in many passive and solitary activities. Based on research with typically developing adolescents, we expected time use to vary by adolescents’ age and gender (e.g. Larson, 2001
). We also assumed that adolescents with an ASD who also had an intellectual disability would do more solitary and passive activities as well as spend more time with family members than those without an intellectual disability (Buttimer and Tierney, 2005
). Regarding the severity of autism symptoms, we hypothesized that adolescents who had more severe social impairment, less developed communication skills, and more maladaptive behaviors would spend less time engaging in social activities and less time with peers than those who had less severe social impairment, more developed communication skills, and fewer behavior problems (Orsmond et al., 2004
; Sigman and Ruskin, 1999
). In terms of family characteristics, we predicted that adolescent time use would vary by family SES, maternal employment status, and family size (Robinson and Bianchi, 1997
; Timmer et al., 1985
). Finally, we hypothesized that more time spent in passive activities, such as television viewing, would be associated with a decrease in language and social interaction skills, and an increase in behavior problems over time (Mahoney and Stattin, 2000
By posing these questions, we hoped this study would illuminate the daily activities of adolescents with an ASD and would increase our understanding of the relationships between time use and other factors, such as demographics, family characteristics, and symptoms, as well as the missing link in our understanding of how and with whom adolescents with an ASD spend their free time and how this might impact their subsequent development.