The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

The Relationship Between Social Cognition and Social Functioning in Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Lauren Bishop-Fitzpatrick, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Nancy J. Minshew, MD, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology; Director, NIH/NICHD Autism Center of Excellence, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Shaun M. Eack, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose: Effectively addressing the substantial and varied needs of the ever-growing number of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the greatest challenges currently faced by both service providers and the social work research community. Yet, we know little about factors that predict positive social functioning and are thus unable to develop services and treatments designed to improve social functioning in the real world for individuals with ASD. Research indicates that individuals with ASD experience marked challenges with cognitive functioning, particularly in social cognition, but the association between cognitive functioning and social functioning has not been addressed in the literature. We hypothesize that social-cognitive functioning positively predicts social functioning, after controlling for demographic factors and intelligence.

Methods: Cross-sectional data were collected from 130 individuals with ASD who were participants in two separate studies conducted in the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Autism Research. The hypothesis was tested by creating standardized composite indices of  cognitive and social functioning, based on theory of mind measures, the Social Responsiveness Scale, the Child Behavior Checklist, and the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales. Average age was 11.79. Males accounted for 90.0% (n=117) of the sample. A series of general linear models were constructed to predict social functioning from cognitive functioning, gender, age, and performance intelligence quotient (PIQ).

Results: As expected, results indicated that there was a significant prediction of social functioning by cognitive functioning, gender, age, and PIQ, F(4, 125)=3.32, p=.013, R2=.096, adjusted R2=.067. Both social-cognitive functioning (B=.179, t(125)=2.688, p=.008, sr2=.05) and age (B=-.042, t(125)=-2.315, p=.022, sr2=.04) contributed significantly to the prediction of social functioning. There was no significant prediction of social functioning by gender (B=.022, t(125)=.143, p=.886, sr2=.00) or PIQ (B=.002, t(125)=.537, p=.592, sr2=.00).

Conclusions and Implications: Findings indicate that social cognition positively predicts social functioning in individuals with ASD, after controlling for gender, age, and intelligence, such that individuals with better social-cognitive function are likely to also have better social functioning. Age also predicts social functioning, after controlling for social-cognitive functioning, gender, and intelligence, such that younger individuals are likely to also have better social functioning. These findings highlight the importance of overall social cognition in positive social functioning, and indicate that social cognition may be an important construct to target in intervention and treatment. Results also indicate that younger participants are likely to function better socially, which may be explained by changes in diagnostic practices or poor availability of treatments and services for adults with ASD. These findings are underscored by the fact that there are very few studies examining social cognitive and social functioning in individuals with ASD. Future research will need to be conducted using larger samples over longer periods of time, but our preliminary results suggest that social workers are needed to help facilitate research and treatment development in this area.