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Social Information Processing Skills in Relation to Emotion Recognition, Theory of Mind, and Pragmatic Language in Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, 2 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
N. M. Russo-Ponsaran1, C. McKown1, J. K. Johnson2, A. Allen1 and B. Evans-Smith1, (1)Behavioral Sciences; Rush NeuroBehavioral Center, Rush University Medical Center, Skokie, IL, (2)Rush NeuroBehavioral Center, Department of Behavioral Sciences, Rush University Medical Center, Skokie, IL
Background: Social impairment is a hallmark of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASDs). Children’s social information processing (SIP) skills, or the ability to identify, process, and solve complex social problems, are associated with social success. Therefore it is not surprising that many children with ASDs are deficient in SIP skills. Yet it is unclear what other social-emotional skills, or deficits, contribute to their SIP challenges.

Objectives: The current study assessed the relationship between SIP skills and other social-emotional skills of emotion recognition, theory of mind, and pragmatic language in children with and without ASDs.

Methods: Forty-one children with ASDs (38 males) and 159 typically-developing (TD) peers between 5-14 years old, with IQ ≥ 85, participated. Diagnoses were confirmed with the ADI-R and ADOS. For the SIP assessment, children were read five hypothetical social problems, such as being bumped by a peer or having to compromise with a peer. After each description, a theoretically-based interview was conducted. Questions mirrored steps in the Crick and Dodge SIP model and included questions tapping into problem encoding, goal generation, and solution competency. Verbatim responses were coded by trained raters who achieved good reliability (α = .83 to .95). Children also completed multiple choice tests of emotion recognition (faces, prosody, postures, and gait), a theory of mind test (Strange Stories), and a pragmatic judgment subtest from the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language.

Results: Both groups showed relationships between problem encoding and pragmatic language, gait recognition, and theory of mind (r ≥ .3, p ≤ .003), as well as between solution competency and pragmatic language (r ≥ .398, p ≤ .010). Unique correlations within the ASD group showed that problem encoding was positively and significantly related to recognition of prosody (r = .34, p = .028) and posture (r = .33, p = .034); goal generation was uniquely related pragmatic language (r = .428, p = .005); and solution competency was correlated with gait (r = .326, p = .037). Unique to the TD group, problem encoding was positively associated with the facial affect (r = .327, p < .001). When correlations differed between groups, regression analysis was used to determine whether the relationships function the same or differently in each group. A significant interaction was found for goal generation and pragmatic language (B = .537, F(3,196) = 14.979, p = .018), indicating that higher scores on pragmatic language tasks had a larger influence on goal generation scores only within the ASD group.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that the antecedents of SIP in children with ASDs are, in some cases, like those in TD children. However, these findings also suggest that some antecedents of SIP in ASDs are qualitatively different than those in TD children. Further research is necessary to understand the manner in which pathways to successful SIP in ASDs resemble and differ from pathways to SIP in TD children. A more complete understanding of the developmental processes underlying SIP in ASDs has potential to inform assessment and treatment planning.

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