Learning to connect: Developmental disability and friendship in high school

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Developmental disability, Friendship, High school, Autism

Subject Categories

Education | Special Education and Teaching


This is a qualitative study of three groups of high school students who are friends; each group includes a student labeled with developmental disabilities and nondisabled high school students. Other researchers as well as autobiographical accounts by people labeled with disabilities report that many people labeled with disabilities are lonely, that the only people in their lives are paid to be there, and that what they want most of all in their lives is a friend. Many parents report the heartbreaking realization that their beloved son or daughter has no friends. Much of the literature suggests that friendships and social interactions between students labeled with developmental disabilities and nondisabled students are more prevalent during the elementary years than in secondary school.

In this study I collected descriptive, qualitative data through ethnographic methods, including participant observation and interviewing. I entered two high schools and one after-school dance class for high school age young women during the course of one school year to examine how high school students labeled with developmental disabilities and nondisabled high school students who are friends described their relationships, in what types of academic and social environments their friendships developed, and how they enacted their friendships on a daily basis. I sought to understand the perspectives and experiences of both the high school students labeled with developmental disabilities and the nondisabled high school students regarding the development and the daily performances of their friendships.

Through phenomenological analysis of the data, I identified several key themes and phenomena. Findings include: (1) The connections of friendship between the study participants can be distinguished from helper and acquaintance relationships; (2) There are social consequences of inadequate academic and social supports in the school settings; (3) Four strategies are reported to be useful for facilitating friendships that were employed by adults in all three settings; (4) The study participants recognized and negotiated specific difficulties with the mechanics of social interactions experienced by the participants labeled with developmental disabilities, culminating in friendship work conducted largely by nondisabled participants.


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.