Difficulties with executive function likely contribute to the social and communicative challenges faced by individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Within this context, effective social skills interventions such as the Social Competence Intervention (SCI) program (Stichter et al., 2010, in press) are targeting executive function (along with theory of mind and emotion recognition) as a key construct in addressing social competence deficits in these children. The precise relationship between intervention-related improvements in day-to-day social competence and changes in underlying neurocognitive processes (e.g., executive function), however, remain unclear.
To evaluate the impact of social skills intervention on three different core components of executive function (i.e., inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility)
Executive function data was collected on 35 children (age range = 11 to 15 yrs) with high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome (HFA/AS) prior to participating in the SCI program (i.e., a short-term social skills intervention) and then again shortly after completion of the intervention. The SCI program is based on cognitive behavioral principles and has been shown to be effective at improving social skills in adolescents with HFA/AS. It is delivered over the course of 10-12 weeks (45-60 minutes twice per week; total = 20 hours of intervention). At both time points (pre- and post-intervention), participants completed digit and spatial memory span tasks assessing verbal and non-verbal working memory, respectively. Inhibitory control was also assessed using a flanker visual filtering task, which required participants to respond to a centrally-presented visual stimulus while ignoring other distracting stimuli on the display. Lastly, a novel task requiring participants to quickly shift back and forth between categorizing stimuli based on shape or color was used to assess cognitive flexibility.
As anticipated, participation in the intervention was associated with a significant decrease in 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 the working memory and inhibitory control tests. There was an overall improvement in forward spatial span performance on the non-verbal working memory tasks, t(34) = 3.61, p < .001. On the inhibitory task, participants were more effective at resisting distracter interference post-intervention as compared to pre-intervention, t(33) = 2.28, p < .05. On the switching tasks, participants generally responded faster post-intervention as compared to pre-intervention, t(26) = 4.50, p < .001; however, no other intervention-related improvements were evident on this task, all ps > .05.
Pre- to post-intervention improvements were observed for 2 of the 3 executive function components that were assessed. 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 data collection (including recruitment of a non-intervention comparison group) remains ongoing.
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