Objectives: The current study examined the extent to which performance on specific social-cognitive and prosocial behavior tasks in a laboratory setting relates to the capacity of young children with ASD to maneuver in their social worlds more broadly. A measure of children’s nonverbal mental age was also obtained to account for differences in cognitive ability.
Methods: Fifteen children with ASD (Mean Age: 48 months, Range: 28 to 68 months) were assessed for their propensity to engage in several social behaviours. Children participated in a series of play-based tasks designed to examine social-cognitive skills (joint attention, imitation of bodily movements and actions on objects). Participants were also presented with social scenarios in which they were evaluated for their tendency to provide different types of aid to the examiner (i.e., retrieving an out-of-reach object, comforting, and sharing). To obtain a measure of children’s socialization skills beyond the laboratory, the Vineland Adaptive Behaviour Survey (VABS; Sparrow, Cicchetti, & Balla, 2005) was administered to primary caregivers. All diagnoses were confirmed using the ADOS-G, which also provided an additional index of social abilities. To ensure that any associations between the various measures of social abilities could not be accounted for by children’s level of development, all children were administered the Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MSEL; Mullen, 1995) from which an index of nonverbal mental age was obtained (Visual Reception Subscale).
Results: The extent to which specific early social abilities measured in a laboratory setting relate to broader socialization skills displayed by children with ASD was examined via a series of partial correlations. After controlling for nonverbal mental age, there was no relationship between any social behaviour observed in the laboratory and parent-reported daily socialization skills (VABS). Nonetheless, significant associations were revealed between the engagement of children with ASD in various helping behaviours and their ADOS-G Reciprocal Social Interaction (r=-.56, p<.05) and Play (r=-.64, p<.05) scores, after controlling for developmental level. This relationship was not observed with children’s social-cognitive performance and their social abilities as measured by the ADOS-G.
Conclusions: Increases in the propensity of young children with ASD to engage in various prosocial behaviours (helping, comforting, sharing), but not social-cognitive skills, was associated with better ADOS-G reciprocal social interaction and play performance. Engagement in these rudimentary forms of other-oriented behaviours appears to hold significant value for broader social success during this age of increasing peer interactions. The absence of an association between experimenter-evaluated social-cognitive and prosocial skills of young children with ASD and their daily socialization skills reported by primary caregivers may reflect the complexity of the latter index of social behaviour and requires further investigation.