Social Anxiety and Social Reciprocity in Children and Adolescents with High Functioning Autism

Friday, May 16, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
L. V. Usher1, C. A. Burrows1, C. B. Schwartz2 and H. A. Henderson1, (1)Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, (2)Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, CT
Background: Social anxiety has been found to be negatively related to social skills in typically and atypically developing children (Erath et al., 2007). For children and adolescents with high functioning autism (HFA), anxiety may negatively impact the implementation of social skills, especially in a novel setting where anxiety is likely to be high. Although the majority of literature reveals a negative correlation between anxiety and social competence in autism (e.g., Chang et al., 2012), Bellini (2004)  found a curvilinear association between self-reports of these variables, suggesting that moderate levels of social anxiety may support the successful application of social skills better than low or high levels of social anxiety.

Objectives: The goal of this study was to examine associations between observed social reciprocity in a laboratory task with an unfamiliar peer and parental reports of social anxiety in typically and atypically developing children and adolescents.

Methods: Participants with HFA (N = 39, 34 males, Mage = 13.85, SD = 2.80) were paired with unfamiliar comparison participants (COM; N =39, 34 males, Mage = 14.14, SD = 2.36) on gender, age, and verbal IQ, and observed during an unstructured interaction. Eye contact, conversational efficacy, and appropriateness during two different tasks were coded from the videotaped interaction to index social reciprocity. Social anxiety was assessed using the parent-reported total score of the Social Anxiety Scale for Children-Revised (La Greca & Stone, 1993).

Results: Polynomial regression analyses were conducted separately for HFA and COM participants to examine whether the relation between social anxiety and social reciprocity was better modeled by a linear or nonlinear function.

For typically developing participants, there was a linear association between parent-reported social anxiety and observed social reciprocity, F(4, 30) = 3.22, p = .03. The quadratic and cubic regression models did not significantly improve the model, ps = .28 and .79, respectively.

For participants with HFA, the linear regression examining parent-reported social anxiety as a predictor of observed social reciprocity was not significant, F(4, 31) = 1.83, p = .15. The quadratic regression examining the addition of parent anxiety squared was significant, F(5, 30) = 3.17, p = .02. Adding the squared term resulted in a significantly better model, β = -2.90, t = -2.66, p = .01, R2 = .35, R2change = .16, indicating that the association between social reciprocity and social anxiety was best represented as an inverted-U. Adding a cubic term did not result in a significantly better model than the quadratic, p = .82.

Conclusions: As hypothesized, we found an inverse relation between parent-reported social anxiety and observed social reciprocity for comparison participants, but for participants with HFA, the relation between social anxiety and social reciprocity was represented as an inverted-U. For children with HFA, a moderate level of social anxiety may be beneficial. Future research would benefit from investigating these associations longitudinally to parse apart the order of effects.