Effort-Based Decision-Making in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
M. G. Mosner1, J. Kinard2, S. McWeeny3, C. R. Damiano4, M. R. Burchinal5, H. J. V. Rutherford6, M. T. Treadway7 and G. S. Dichter8, (1)University of North Carolina, Carrboro, NC, (2)Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, NC, (3)Psychology, University of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, NC, (4)University of North Carolina, Durham, NC, (5)Data Management and Analysis Core, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, (6)Yale Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, CT, (7)Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, (8)University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
Background: The purpose of this investigation is to examine effort-based decision-making in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is well established that ASD is characterized by deficits in social cognition, social perception, and social communication. However, there has been recent emphasis on addressing motivational aspects of social deficits in ASD (Chevallier, Kohls, Troiani, Brodkin, & Schultz, 2012). Although current conceptualizations of reward processing deficits in ASD have focused specifically on processing of social rewards, evidence suggests that processing of non-social rewards is impaired in ASD as well (Dichter & Adolphs, 2012). Recently, our research group reported that adults with ASD are characterized by impaired effort-based decision-making in the context of monetary rewards (Damiano, Aloi, Treadway, Bodfish, & Dichter, 2012). 

Objectives: The present study is a downward extension of our previous findings and explores effort-based decision-making in adolescents with ASD. Additionally, effort-based decision-making in the context of rewards for self versus others will be investigated.

Methods: To date, we have collected data from 15 typically developing controls (TDCs; age M= 14.79, IQ M =109) and 24 high-functioning adolescents with ASD (age M=14.96, IQ M =97). ASD diagnoses were confirmed with the ADOS-2 and groups were matched on age and gender distribution (p’s>.05). By the date of the IMFAR conference, we anticipate that we will have collected data from an additional 10 TDCs and 10 participants with ASD. A modified version of the Effort Expenditure for Rewards Task (EEfRT) was used as a behavioral measure of effort-based decision-making. In this task, participants were provided with the probability of receiving monetary rewards on a given trial and asked to choose between an “easy task” for a small, stable reward or a “hard task” for a variable but consistently larger reward (Damiano et al., 2012; Treadway, Buckholtz, Schwartzman, Lambert, & Zald, 2009). In addition, participants were told they were either playing to win money for themselves (“self” condition) or for a hypothetical person on a particular trial (“other” condition). 

Results: Analyses examined the proportion of hard task choices in the “self” and “other” conditions. Results revealed a main effect of group such that the ASD group made fewer hard task choices across both self (p=.014) and other (p=.057) conditions compared to the TDC group. There was no main effect of condition (self vs. other) nor was there a significant group x self vs. other interaction. 

Conclusions: Findings suggest that adolescents with ASD are biased towards less effort expenditure for rewards for themselves and for others. These results stand in contrast to our previous findings, in which we found that adults with ASD were biased towards more effort expenditure for rewards. Adolescence in particular may be a period during which reward-based decision-making differs compared to adults (Blakemore, 2008; Rilling & Sanfey, 2011), and these results further highlight that ASD research should be framed in the context of longitudinal change (Karmiloff-Smith, 1998). Future research in this area will consider younger children with ASD as well as effort expenditure for more personally relevant rewards in ASD.