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The Role of Language in Social Cognition Among Children with HFASD, LD, and Typ: Social Information Processing, Executive Function, and Theory of Mind

Saturday, 4 May 2013: 14:45
Meeting Room 3 (Kursaal Centre)
N. Bauminger, School of Education, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel

Background: The heart of social-cognitive understanding of social situations lies in adequate social information processing (SIP), through which children encode social cues, provide interpretations for encoded stimuli, search for possible social responses, evaluate responses' social appropriateness, and choose the best solution for enactment. Two related capabilities are required to enable efficient SIP: mentalizing other minds (theory of mind – ToM) including others' thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions; and executive-function (EF) capabilities like planning and cognitive flexibility. Although not extensively examined in clinical populations, SIP, ToM, and EF alike are not intact in children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (HFASD) or with learning disabilities (LD), which seriously impedes their social functioning compared to children with typical development (TYP). However, prior research did not compare HFASD and LD or examine the links between SIP, ToM, and EF, nor was the role of language determined.


Objectives: This novel study is aimed at providing comprehensive understanding of the unique socio-cognitive profile of each clinical population (HFASD, LD) by comparing the two and comparing them to children with TYP, while controlling for language differences, as well as by examining links between SIP, ToM, and EF.


Method: Study participants included 96 boys in Grades 3-6 matched on CA, comprising 33 TYP, 38 LD, and 25 HFASD. Measures included Crick and Dodge's (1994) SIP scale; EF tasks measuring planning (Tower of Hanoi, Borys, Spitz, & Dorans, 1982) and cognitive flexibility (D-KEFs, Delis, Kaplan, & Kramer, 2001); and a ToM task (Faux Pas Stories, Baron-Cohen, O’Riordan, Stone, Jones, & Plaisted, 1999). Language was controlled via a nationally-normed language test (Mashe, Rom, Morag, & Peleg, 2007) providing a comprehensive language assessment and language-age score.


Results: Before controlling for language results demonstrated that the HFASD group showed the lowest SIP, EF, and ToM capabilities compared with both LD and TYP peers. More specifically, SIP coding and response generation were lower than TYP in both LD and HFASD, but HFASD also had difficulties in cue interpretation and goal clarification and were lowest in generating effective responses. On EF tasks, both clinical groups were lower than TYP in planning as well as cognitive flexibility during self-sorting. But on the EF cognitive-flexibility task of categorization and its explanation, the HFASD group was lowest, TYP was highest, and LD was in between. On ToM skills, again the HFASD group was lowest.

Controlling for groups' language differences canceled out group differences in most SIP steps as well as in EF-planning, but differences in EF-cognitive-flexibility and ToM remained. SIP was found to correlate with both EF and ToM in the entire study population, attesting to their importance for SIP; however, Z-Fisher tests to examine the significance of differences in correlations between groups did not reveal a homogeneous profile.


Conclusions: This study's findings broaden understanding of social cognition in HFASD and LD and emphasize the role of language in socio-cognitive skills. SIP, ToM, and EF seem most vulnerable in children with HFASD. Implications for intervention are discussed.

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