International Meeting for Autism Research: Social Cognition Mediates the Relationship Between Autism-Associated Social Traits and Social Skill

Social Cognition Mediates the Relationship Between Autism-Associated Social Traits and Social Skill

Friday, May 13, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
2:00 PM
R. B. Nowlin1 and N. J. Sasson2, (1)University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX, (2)University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX, United States
Background:  Traits associated with autism have been found in a milder, subclinical level in a subset of non-affected first degree relatives of individuals with autism, a phenomenon that has been deemed the “Broad Autism Phenotype” (BAP; Piven et al., 1997).  A subset of BAP individuals who exhibit socially aloof or untactful personality characteristics demonstrate reduced performance on social cognitive tasks (Losh et al., 2009). These findings suggest a relationship between a specific social BAP profile and impaired social cognitive performance. Whether this relationship affects social functioning and extends to the general population has yet to be explored.

Objectives: To determine whether aspects of the BAP predict real world social functioning in the general population, and if this relationship is mediated by social cognitive ability.

Methods: 64 individuals varying on the presence of BAP traits as measured by the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire (BAPQ; Hurley et al. 2007) were assessed by an in vivo observational measure of social skill (“Conversation Probe role-play” [CP]; Pinkham et al. 2006), and completed standardized social cognitive tasks of face and affect recognition.  To determine whether social cognition mediates the relationship between BAP traits and social skill, a series of regression analyses were conducted according to Baron and Kenny (1986).

Results:  Social BAP traits significantly predicted approximately 6% of the variance in overall social skill (adjusted R2 = .063; F (1, 63) = 5.26, p < .05), and approximately 7% of the variance in a composite score of performance on the tasks social cognition (adjusted R2 = .071, F (1, 63) = 5.82, p < .05). To test social cognition as a mediator, social BAP was entered as a predictor of social skill, followed by the addition of social cognition. Once social cognition was added to the model, social BAP traits were no longer a significant predictor of social skill (p = .17), demonstrating that social cognitive ability partially mediates the relationship between social BAP traits and social skill.

Conclusions: Findings from this study are the first to demonstrate that social BAP traits in the general population are related to real world impairments in social skill, a relationship that is partially mediated by social cognitive abilities. Data collection and analyses on the mediating role of other social cognitive skills (e.g., theory of mind), as well as a more detailed analysis of subcomponents of social skill (e.g., eye to eye gaze, facial expressivity, clarity and fluency of language) are ongoing and will be available in time for the conference.

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