Linking Social Motivation to Social Skill: Contributions of Anxiety & Impulsivity

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
E. E. Neuhaus1, A. Kresse2, E. J. Libsack2, S. J. J. Webb3, R. Bernier3 and K. Pelphrey4, (1)PO Box 5371, Seattle Children's Hospital, Seattle, WA, (2)Seattle Children's Research Institute, Seattle, WA, (3)University of Washington, Seattle, WA, (4)Yale Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT
Background:  Several recent models propose that social motivation deficits underlie social dysfunction in ASD. Such models assume that social motivation is fundamental to social skill. Although likely, this assumption is not well established empirically. Moreover, additional traits likely contribute to social functioning among children. Both anxiety and impulsivity are plausible candidate traits that may blunt the facilitative effects of social motivation – high levels of anxiety and impulsivity may inhibit appropriate social behavior and exacerbate inappropriate social behavior, respectively. Indeed, impaired social skills are commonly observed among children with heightened anxiety, as well as those with heightened impulsivity. 

Objectives:  We aim to explore the contributions of social motivation, anxiety, and impulsivity to determine whether individual differences in these traits promote or inhibit social success among children with and without ASD.  

Methods:  Data were obtained from two related studies spanning four research sites across the US, for a total sample of 160 children and adolescents (66 female; mean age=11.9 yrs, SD=2.7, range=8 to 18) with ASD (n=87) or typical development (TD; n=73). All children were verbally fluent, at or above average IQ levels, and all ASD children met clinical cut-offs on ADOS-2, ADI-R, and DSM-5 criteria.  Social motivation was assessed via parent report on the SRS Social Motivation subscale. Social skill was measured via the Vineland Socialization domain. CBCL subscale T-scores were used as measures of parent-reported impulsivity and anxiety.  

Results:  For the full sample, social motivation accounted for 49.7% of the variance in social skill (F(1, 159)=158.36, p<.000). Stronger motivation was associated with better skills. The addition of impulsivity and the Motivation x Interaction accounted for an additional 10% of variance in skill (F(3, 159)=79.58, p<.001). The inclusion of anxiety did not account for additional variance, however (p=.853). Next, relationships were examined within the ASD and TD groups separately. For TD children, social motivation was associated with social skill and accounted for 15.3% of the variance (F(1, 72)=13.99, p<.001), with no evidence of influence by either anxiety or impulsivity (ps>.16). In contrast, for the ASD group, a model containing social motivation, impulsivity, and their interaction accounted for 24.8% of the variance in social skill (F(3, 86)=10.45, p<.001), with significant contributions from motivation and impulsivity (ps<.03). Better skills were associated with stronger motivation and lower impulsivity. The interaction between these traits was marginal (F(3, 86)=10.45, p=.069); the association between social motivation and skill was weaker for children with higher levels of impulsivity (Figure 1).

Conclusions:  Our results suggest that social motivation facilitates social skills, but also indicate a role for behavioral impulsivity. This relationship was most apparent for children with ASD, highlighting an additional target for interventions aiming to improve social functioning. Notably, anxiety did not appear to contribute to social skills for children with ASD. Neither anxiety nor impulsivity contributed to social skill for typically developing children, suggesting that additional factors not included in our analyses may be important for understanding social functioning more broadly. Findings underscore the complexity of behavioral factors promoting social success and engagement during childhood.