Re-Evaluating the Reduced Social Motivation Theory of Autism

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
I. Dubey1, S. Brett2, L. Ruta3, M. Belmonte4, V. Patel5, G. Divan6, J. Dasgupta7, S. Gulati8, S. Bhavnani7, D. Mukherjee7, R. Bishain9, S. Chandran10, G. Estrin11, T. Gliga11, M. H. Johnson12 and B. Chakrabarti1, (1)Centre for Autism, School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom, (2)School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom, (3)Institute of Applied Sciences and Intelligent Systems, “Eduardo Caianiello” (ScienceApp) – National Research Council of Italy (CNR), Messina, Italy, (4)Com DEALL Trust, Bangalore, India, (5)Department of Global Health and Population, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, (6)Sangath, Bardez, Goa, India, (7)Centre for Chronic Conditions and Injuries, Public Health Foundation of India, Gurgaon, India, (8)Child Neurology Division Department of Pediatrics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, India, (9)Computer Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India, (10)Computer Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of technology, Mumbai, India, (11)Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck University of London, London, United Kingdom, (12)Centre of Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, United Kingdom
Background: Autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have been suggested to be characterised by reduced social motivation, resulting in lower social seeking behaviour and poorer learning of social skills (Chevallier, Kohls, Troiani, Brodkin, & Schultz, 2012). This ‘social motivation hypothesis’ presupposes that typically developing children have higher social motivation which helps them in seeking out social contacts and learning the associated skills. However, some empirical reports suggest that typically developing children do not show the expected pattern of high seeking behaviour for social stimuli, and that their preference for social stimuli might be at a chance level (Ewing, Pellicano, & Rhodes, 2013; Ruta et al., 2017). This observation emphasises the need for a systematic examination of social reward seeking in a large sample of typically developing children, and its relationship with autism-related trait measures.

Objectives: To test if a) typically developing children demonstrate higher social reward seeking behaviour, as measured by a simple button-press task (Ruta et al., 2017), and b) if individual differences in such social reward seeking behaviour are related to risk for autistic features.

Methods: 111 children aged 2-9 years were tested on a simple two-button task on a tablet PC, pressing one button to watch a social video (smiling child) and another button to watch a video of moving geometric patterns (Ruta et al., 2017). The stimuli were visually matched for their colour and level of movements. Participants were also tested on the Social Aptitude Scale (SAS) which has demonstrated high sensitivity and specificity (0.936 and 0.934 respectively) in identifying children at risk of autism (Liddle, Batty, & Goodman, 2009). In keeping with the hypothesis of reduced social motivation, we predicted that 1) these typical children would press the button more often for social than for non-social stimuli, and 2) children with lower scores on SAS would show less of this social seeking button preference.

Results: Similarly to earlier reports, typical children did not have any significant preference for social over non-social stimuli (t (111) = 1.03, p = 0.30). However, the number of social button presses correlated significantly with SAS score (r (83) = .28, p = .010).

Conclusions: Consistent with the previous report on this task (Ruta et al., 2017), current results show that comparable seeking behaviour for social and non-social stimuli in children might not indicate atypical development or poor social skills per se. However, lower seeking behaviour for social stimuli might be linked dimensionally with a higher risk for ASC.