Impact Feature Issue on Supporting Success in School and Beyond for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Best Practices in Promoting Friendship Development for Students with ASD


Lesley Craig-Unkefer is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Friendships are among the most intimate and important relationships in our lives. They affect all areas of our well-being, are significant throughout our entire lives, and are shaped by the unique needs, social skills, interests, and other personal traits (such as gender) of the participants. And for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), development of friendships is important and can be a challenge.

Benefits of Friendship

Friendships have many purposes and take many forms. In the most basic form, people spend time together pursuing activities of mutual interest, enhancing each other’s self-esteem, and engaging in sharing of feelings, intimacy, and trust (Shulman, Elicker, & Stroufe, 1994; Shulman, 1993). Such friendships are mutually beneficial, providing nurtur-ance and support to the individuals involved (Falvey & Rosenberg, 1995).

Friendships between peers with and without disabilities can result in additional beneficial outcomes that include a greater understanding and appreciation of individual differences by the typical peers, development of age-appropriate social behaviors by peers with exception-alities, and expanded friendship networks as well as improved quality of life for both participants (McDonnell, Hardeman, McDonnell, Kiefer-O’Donnell, 1995; Schleien, Green, & Heyne, 1993; Abery et al., 1997). Developing relationships between students with and without disabilities that will be sustainable friendships over time requires some planning to increase the likelihood that the relationships will occur and be mutually beneficial. Teachers, caregivers, and parents of students with ASD can help set the stage for interactions between peers that can result in such friendships.

Strategies to Promote Friendship

Although programming friendships is not the primary aim of special education professionals, strategies that are curricular, instructional or community-oriented can improve the development of relationships between students with ASD and their peers (Falvey & Rosenberg, 1995). Encouraging mutually satisfying relationships that will build on the strengths and diverse needs of students is an appropriate goal for educators.

Methods to promote friendships, and to promote interactions that may lead to friendships as either a direct or indirect possible outcome, include (1) teacher-based strategies, (2) environmental placement, and (3) peer-mediated pro- grams that either focus on instruction (teaching a particular skill or task) or on social, play, and leisure engagement that facilitate social skill development. The effectiveness of these methods with school-age individuals with ASD is unclear as investigations that specifically focus exclusively on friendship development with this population are limited (Carrington et al., 2003; Danko & Buysse, 2002; Whitaker et al., 1998).

There are various strategies to consider that promote social engagement between peers. Adult-mediated strategies focus on the active facilitation of social interactions. Given the variation of social competence and social skill of individuals with ASD, adults should promote and model acceptance with the classmates of the student with ASD. Simple actions such as using the student’s name, pulling the student into ongoing activities, and supporting peers without hindering independence are some examples of actions that should be ongoing (Snell & Janney, 2000).

Social skill instruction can be a means to increase positive outcomes that will in turn promote peer acceptance. The instruction may be individualized or commercial and the instructional method may be adult- or peer- mediated or a combination of both. The activities associated with social skill instruction can be incorporated as a whole class or small group. The following considerations should be addressed when determining the most appropriate social skill curriculum or program: (1) the focus of the instruction should be age-appropriate; (2) there should be multiple opportunities for practice with various individuals in multiple settings; (3) discrete skills such as establishing and maintaining eye contact or joint attention should be addressed, as well as activities that require using multiple skills such as engaging in a conversation, so that the student can develop a repertoire of skills; (4) various types of supports, such as verbal and visual prompts, should be embedded in activities to increase the likelihood that these skills will be used during social interactions; (5) there should be considerations for crisis management or back-up plans; and (6) the environment should be arranged to increase social engagement.

Determining appropriate social skill instruction is a key element in relationship and friendship development. There are many commercial programs as well as individualized empirically tested interventions that focus on discrete social skills (Carter & Hughes, 2005; Snell & Janney, 2000). Social skill curricula specific to students with Autism are limited. Of those curricula that focus on instruction and are developed for students with Autism, social skill instruction may be either embedded in the curriculum and not an exclusive focus, or limited to a specific age range (Mesibov, 2005; Strain, 2000). Considering the unique nature of friendship, the most important consideration is opportunity. With opportunity comes the development of a community in which students with ASD and their typical peers can engage in mutual and reciprocal relationships.

Four Factors Affecting Friendship

In considering the methods described above, it’s also important to note that there are four factors affecting friendship development for students: (1) child characteristics, (2) child social competency, (3) social context, and (4) the develop- mental context. The first factor is child characteristics. A reciprocal relationship is grounded in the commonalities shared by the two individuals. Friends are more alike than different and resemble each other in sociodemographic characteristics such as age, sex, ethnicity, appearance, school-related attitudes, and aspirations (Hartup, 1996). Personality characteristics and social attitudes affect friendship selection, but sociodemographic characteristics are a more significant factor. Educators who work with students with ASD should take these characteristics into consideration in, for example, forming groups of students for activities intended to facilitate interactions that may lead to friendships.

The second factor to consider is child social competency including social, communicative, and play skills. As this is a critical feature of diagnosis and intervention for this population, promoting the basics of social skills (e.g., eye contact, joint attention, turn-taking) is essential for social competency. Both systematic implementation and incidental teaching of social skills should occur in a variety of instructional groupings (one-to one, small and large group). In addition, instructional planning of these skills should include generalization and maintenance. As there may be a difference in social skill between partners, the teacher or other adult support should consider the best case scenario for the interaction and how to make that interaction occur by considering the role of the adult in the interaction that will promote engagement between the peers without active engagement in the interaction.

The third factor is social context. Social context includes the social and physical settings where interactions occur. Inclusive settings are the most frequent context for interactions (Hendrickson, 1996). Providing frequent opportunities for contact increases the likelihood that interactions with peers will lead to friendship formation. Both academic and social interactions should be considered. There should be a purpose to the interaction, and support should be provided to the peers to sustain the interaction through prompting and reinforcement.

The final factor addresses the developmental context and ways in which the purpose and function of friendships changes over time. Throughout a person’s lifetime, friendships contribute to the acquisition of skills and social competencies, as well to developmental success. These important relationships begin in childhood, becoming more complex in early adolescence (Newcomb & Bagwell, 1996). Strategies that are in accord with social, emotional, and physical development include the recognition that the conditions of friendship change over time, with reciprocity and commitment becoming a more complex condition in adolescence and beyond. Age, skill, and history of the peers should be examined over time.


For individuals with ASD, social interactions, friendships, and other relationships are integral to optimal educational outcomes and social development. Fostering friendships can be a complex endeavor. The strategies presented here are a starting point, but more research is needed. Activities that have a peer component are one way to promote relationship development for this population; however, there is little known of their generalized or longitudinal effects on friendship facilitation. Developing interventions that utilize the strategies that promote peer interaction and engagement, particularly those that have specified goals and objectives related to the four considerations previously outlined, are needed. Conducting studies with strong procedures and reliable data that reflect valued outcomes is the next step in this area of research and will provide needed evidence of those best practices for friendship development for students with ASD.


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