Children with ASD show impairments in social functioning, most specifically in relating to others (DSM-IV-TR, APA, 2000). Researchers argue that autism may involve a failure to assign reward value to social consequences (Dube et al., 2004). Deficits in core social behaviors, such as joint attention, may therefore be secondary to a more primary disturbance in underlying social motivation mechanisms (Dawson et. al, 2005; Mundy 1995, 2003). Dube and colleagues (2004) have described a forced preference assessment for adult attention as a method for assessing social motivation, proposing that performance on this task would be related to joint attention skills. However, this relationship has not been empirically studied. Further, the construct validity of the procedure proposed by Dube and colleagues has not been systemically investigated.
The purpose of this study was to examine the relation between social motivation (or preference for adult attention), utilizing the procedures described in Dube et al. (2004), and joint attention skills. It was expected that these measures would be positively correlated.
Participants included 47 children between the ages of 2 and 5. All children had a previous diagnosis of an ASD and met cutoffs for ASD or Autism on the ADOS and were part of a larger study on the effectiveness of an intervention targeting initiating joint attention skills. For the current investigation, participants were administered the Early Social Communication Scales (ESCS; Mundy et al., 1996, 2003) to measure joint attention, social interaction and requesting skills. A Forced Choice Preference Assessment for Adult Attention (FCPA-AA; Dube, 2004) was used to quantify overall levels of social motivation. During the 5-minute FCPA-AA, participants could allocate time to one of two sides of a clinic room containing either an interactive adult or an adult providing no interaction. Duration of time spent on the side of the room with the interactive adult was used as an indication of level of social motivation.
A significant positive relation was found between total initiating joint attention acts (IJA) and duration of time spent with an interactive adult during the FCPA-AA task (r(47)= 0.288, p= 0.050) when assessed together at an initial time point; initial FCPA-AA performance, however, was not predictive of gains in joint attention skills approximately 3 months later in a control sample (r(12)= 0.124, p= 0.701) or in a sample of children who were exposed to a joint attention intervention (r(16)= -0.152, p= 0.575).
Findings suggest that the relation between social motivation and subsequent social development may be more complex than hypothesized in the literature. Specifically, data raise empirical questions regarding the methodology used to quantify social motivation and the predictive validity of the social motivation construct. Future research should aim to determine the stability of social motivation as a construct, elucidate whether individual differences in social motivation serve as a predictor of positive outcomes and response to intervention, and explore factors which may mediate the relation between social motivation and joint attention.
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