Characterizing Change in Social Skills and Executive Functioning after Social Competence Intervention in Youth with ASD

Friday, May 15, 2015: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Imperial Ballroom (Grand America Hotel)
K. Bellesheim1, J. Stichter1, R. M. O'Donnell2 and M. Herzog1, (1)University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, (2)Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO

Deficits in executive functioning (i.e., EF, the ability to flexibly allocate mental resources to guide thoughts and actions in light of internal goals) are implicated in the development of the core symptomology of ASD (i.e., deficits in social communication and restricted, repetitive behaviors), and more broadly, have been shown to have a positive correlation with deficits in social skills across clinical populations. Targeted interventions to improve socials skills or EF are often associated with improvements in both domains. Conducted in structured settings, performance-based measures of EF are appropriate to assess a participant’s ability to internally engage and disengage from a higher-order cognitive task. In contrast, ratings-based measures of EF provide information on an individual’s ability to maintain and manipulate higher-order processes in unstructured, everyday settings, capturing the ability to not only internally engage and disengage, but also to suppress the effect of external stimuli (i.e., distractions and disruptions). Specifically, a comparison between performance-based and ratings-based measures of EF may provide additional information on the ability of individuals with ASD to suppress external stimuli. Targeted social skills interventions such as the Social Competence Intervention for Adolescents (SCI-A) provide opportunity to measure the relationship between social skills improvements and low-suppression (e.g., D-KEFS) versus high-suppression EF measures (e.g., BRIEF).  

Objectives:  The goal of the current proposal is to characterize changes in improvements in social skills on low-suppression versus high-suppression measures of EF in youth with ASD after social competence intervention. 

Methods:  The SCI-A curriculum, a school-based group social skills intervention, was administered to 24 students with social skills deficits (mean age = 13.2, SD= 1.24). SCI-A utilizes evidence-based cognitive-behavioral techniques and applied behavior analysis with the aim to increase social competence through 20+ hours of classroom intervention. Past studies illustrate that students undergoing SCI-A demonstrate gains in social behavior, problem solving, and EF. Assessment batteries were conducted two weeks prior to implementation and two weeks following the completion of the curriculum and included measures of social skills (i.e., NEPSY, SRS-2, GSOM), performance-based EF measures (i.e., D-KEFS), and ratings-based EF measures (i.e., BRIEF).


Repeated measures ANOVA models were used to analyze differences on each outcome assessment from pre- to post-intervention. Consistent with past research on SCI-A, social skills improvements were evidenced in measures of affect recognition on the GSOM, theory of mind on the NEPSY, and in social cognition and autistic mannerisms on the SRS. On EF measures, students revealed significant improvement on D-KEFS Design Fluency (F(1,15)=18.04, p=.001, ηP2 =.55) and overall improvement on the BRIEF (t(16)=2.02, p=.03, d=.35). 


Without intervention, youth with ASD demonstrate distinct deficits in EF, namely a typical but delayed developmental trajectory in performance-based EF and expanding deficits in ratings-based EF across childhood. Improvements on the D-KEFS and BRIEF are indicative of increases in EF regardless of suppression level. Notably, the downward trajectory of high-suppression EF measures may be reversed after social competence intervention. Characterizing the changes in low-suppression and high-suppression EF after participation in a social skills intervention will elucidate the mechanisms involved in deficits associated ASD.