Exploring interpersonal and environmental factors of autistic adolescents’ peer engagement in integrated education

Yu Lun Chen, Maxwell Schneider, Kristie Patten

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Autistic students often struggle to engage with peers in integrated education; however, research has largely focused on individual characteristics rather than the interpersonal and environmental factors affecting peer engagement. This mixed-methods study examined longitudinal peer interactions over a school year among 17 adolescents (seven were autistic) in an inclusive school club. The quantitative phase investigated participants’ social behavior rates to identify sessions where each student demonstrated high and low peer engagement compared with their average participation levels. The qualitative phase compared social interactions and contexts between sessions of high and low peer engagement, revealing four themes regarding contextual supports and barriers to autistic peer engagement: (1) peer engagement is a participatory process where a student and their peer(s) navigate mutual understanding, shaped by both student and peer social characteristics, openness, and involvement; (2) student–peer synchronicity, such as shared interests or compatibility of social styles, was essential to autistic peer engagement; (3) peer engagement can be supported by activities facilitating joint engagement and exploration of mutual interests; (4) classroom interventions emphasizing strengths can support peer engagement, while normative behavioral standards without peer education on individual differences and diversity can perpetuate peers’ negative perceptions of autistic difficulties. Lay abstract: Peer engagement is essential but often challenging for autistic students in integrated education, especially for adolescents. Although peer engagement is bidirectional and context-dependent, research has largely focused on individual characteristics rather than the interpersonal and environmental factors affecting peer engagement. This mixed-methods study examined peer interactions over a school year among 17 adolescents (seven were autistic) in an inclusive school club at a public middle school in the Northeastern United States. The study began with a quantitative phase identifying sessions in which each student was socially engaged with peers more or less often than usual for them. We then qualitatively compared the social interactions and contexts between sessions where each participant experienced high and low peer engagement. Thematic analysis revealed four themes regarding contextual supports and barriers to autistic peer engagement: (1) peer engagement is a participatory process where a student and their peer(s) navigate mutual understanding, shaped by both student and peer social characteristics, openness, and involvement; (2) student–peer synchronicity, such as shared interests or compatibility of social styles, was essential to autistic peer engagement; (3) peer engagement can be supported by activities facilitating joint engagement and exploration of mutual interests; (4) classroom interventions emphasizing strengths can support peer engagement, while normative behavioral standards without peer education on individual differences and diversity can perpetuate peers’ negative perceptions of autistic difficulties. The findings have implications for better inclusive practice to support autistic social participation by modifying the peer environments, activities, and classroom interventions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAutism
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

Keywords

  • adolescents
  • double empathy problem
  • education services
  • environmental factors
  • inclusion
  • inclusive education
  • interpersonal factors
  • peer engagement
  • social cognition and social behavior
  • social participation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology

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