Objectives: To evaluate the possible relationship between intervention-related improvements in social competence and changes in underlying cognitive processes (e.g., executive function).
Methods: Fifteen children with High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome (mean age = 12.3 yrs; range = 11 to 14 yrs) participated in the Social Competence Intervention (SCI), a 10-week CBI-based intervention that was recently developed by one of the co-authors to improve social skills competence in individuals with ASD. It targets executive functioning, theory of mind and emotion recognition as key constructs in addressing social competence deficits. Two components of executive function (i.e., working memory and inhibitory control) were assessed at two time points: once prior to participating in SCI (Week 0), and then again shortly after completion of the intervention (Week 12). Digit and spatial memory span tasks were used to assess verbal and non-verbal working memory, respectively. Inhibitory control was assessed using a visual filtering task (Eriksen & Eriksen, 1974), which required participants to respond to a centrally-presented visual stimulus while ignoring other distracting stimuli on the display.
Results: As anticipated, participation in the intervention was associated with a significant decrease in autistic symptomatology and other problematic social behaviors/issues (as measured by parents’ reports on the Social Responsiveness Scale), p < .001. In addition, pre- to post-intervention improvements were also observed on several components of the working memory and inhibitory control tests. There was an overall improvement in forward span performance across both the verbal and non-verbal working memory tasks, F(1,15) = 4.62, p < .05. However, the intervention had no apparent effect on backward span performance, F(1,15) < 1, p = .45. On the inhibitory task, participants were more effective at resisting distracter interference post-intervention as compared to pre-intervention, t(14) = 3.13, p < .05.
Conclusions: The present findings provide preliminary support for the hypothesis that participation in the SCI program is accompanied by improvements in underlying neurocognitive processes such as executive control. Additional research with a larger sample size and inclusion of a non-intervention comparison group is still needed.