Knowledge or Performance - Why Youth with Autism Experience Social Problems

Lerner, Matthew Daniel, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Lillard, Angeline, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Youth with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (HFASDs) exhibit average cognitive ability, but social deficits manifested in their ability to understand another's perspective (Theory of Mind), decipher feelings from nonverbal cues (emotion recognition), and display prosocial behavior. Most treatments consider these deficits in terms of social knowledge (lacking knowledge of correct social behaviors) and provide training accordingly. Some research suggests that the primary deficit may exist in terms of social performance (failing to enact known behaviors because of confounding factors) and should be remediated differently. Across three studies, I assessed social knowledge versus performance deficits, and brief intervention response, among adolescents with HFASDs. Forty-one youth with HFASD (33 male; M age = 12.01, SD age = 2.07) attended two laboratory visits in which they completed measures of social knowledge and performance-related variables (social creativity, motivation, and social information processing speed [SIPS]). They were randomly assigned, in dyads, to brief knowledgeor performance-training sessions, during which peer social interactions were observed; they were also assessed in terms of Theory of Mind, emotion recognition, and unstructured social interaction. Study 1 focused on construct validity of SIPS due to the novelty of using eventrelated potentials (ERPs) to measure social functioning. Results indicated that SIPS is a stronger predictor than evaluative ERPs in predicting emotion recognition. Knowledge or Performance: ASD ii Study 2 examined social knowledge and performance-related factors in predicting social outcomes. While social knowledge demonstrated no main effects, it interacted with SIPS and motivation to predict emotion recognition and interaction quality. SIPS and motivation each predicted emotion recognition. Results question the primacy of social knowledge in social functioning. Study 3 examined effects of brief social knowledgeand performance-training sessions on change in social functioning outcomes. Participants' interaction decreased during session, although this decrease was less for those in performance-training. Social performance-related factors predicted changes regardless of condition. Social knowledge and creativity demonstrated differences by condition. This investigation suggests that a complex interplay of perceptual and socialcognitive factors characterize social functioning, and that these factors can be meaningfully isolated and used to predict intervention response. Implications for models of social functioning and intervention among ASD and typically-developing populations are discussed.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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