Previous research has established that Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are associated with a high prevalence of depression and deficits in social problem solving. Poor social problem solving skills have consistently been shown to be a strong predictor of depression in numerous studies. There is evidence that individuals with subclinical levels of autistic traits also experience difficulties with depression. Only one study has previously examined the relationship between autistic traits, depressed mood and social problem-solving, but solely measured the process component of social problem-solving and failed to report on the subscale relationships of their measured variables.
This study examined if: (i.) higher levels of autistic traits are associated with higher levels of depressed mood; (ii.) higher levels of autistic traits are associated with deficits in social problem solving abilities (both process and outcome measures of social problem-solving); (iii.) social problem solving deficits are associated with higher levels of depressed mood; (iv.) social problem solving abilities play a mediating role in the relationship between levels of autistic traits and depressed mood; and (v.) how specific sub-components of social problem-solving (e.g., impulsivity, negative problem orientation) are associated with autistic traits and depressed mood; and, likewise, how sub-components of the autistic trait measure (e.g. attention to detail, imagination) are associated with depressed mood and social problem-solving ability.
Seventy-seven university students completed four self-report measures: the Autistic Spectrum Quotient (AQ), the Beck Depression Inventory- II, the Social Problem Solving Inventory – Revised (process measure), Means-Ends Problem-Solving Test (outcome measure)
- Higher BDI-II scores were significantly associated with higher AQ scores (r = .343, p < .002), as well as three of the five AQ subscales.
- Higher AQ scores were significantly associated with poorer overall SPSI-R scores (r = -.319, p < .002), and overall MEPS score (r = -.278, p < .01). AQ scores were also significantly correlated with two of the five SPSI-R subcategories, while the combined effect of the SPSI-R and MEPS scores were significantly correlated four of the five AQ subscales AQ.
- Higher BDI-II scores were significantly associated with poorer overall SPSI-R score (r = -.490, p < .002), and overall MEPS score (r = -.345, p < .002).
- When the ability of social problem solving skills to predict depressed mood was controlled for, levels of autistic traits were no longer a significant predictor of levels of depressed mood (p = .138).
Like individuals diagnosed with ASD, individuals displaying subclinical levels of autistic traits have difficulties with depressed mood and social problem-solving. Individuals with high levels of autistic traits are inclined to assume a negative orientation, express limited initiative to confront, and produce ineffective solutions when faced with social conflict scenarios. As social problem solving mediates the relationship between autistic traits and depressed mood, future work should examine the ability to develop positive and functional social problem-solving abilities in individuals with subclinical levels of autistic traits for the treatment of depressed mood.
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