Real-World Social Problem-Solving in ASD: The Influence of Executive Functions
Objectives: This work examined diagnostic differences in a novel measure of accuracy on a social communication task, and associations between task performance and executive function, social communication, and verbal IQ skills. We hypothesized that adolescents with ASD would underperform in a social problem-solving task, and that their difficulties would reflect individual differences in executive function (especially planning, working memory and inhibition).
Methods: A total of 29 adolescents (15 TD, 14 ASD) completed a social communication task in which participants collaborated verbally with an undergraduate research assistant (RA; naive to study hypotheses) to navigate a series of maps (Anderson et al., 1991). Participants alternated between “Tourist” and “Guide” roles, completing six maps. “Guide” maps (Figure 1a) contained a route drawn from a starting point through a series of landmarks to a finish point; the corresponding “Tourist” map contained similar landmarks without the route. There were three non-shared landmarks on each map. Guide and Tourist routes were converted to digital format for analysis in Photoshop (Figure 1b). Route accuracy was operationalized as the number of pixels contained within the area formed by the spatial difference between correct and drawn routes (Figure 1c). Participants also completed the Stanford Binet Vocabulary subtest; parents completed the BRIEF parent report form, as a measure of executive skills, and the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ) and the ADOS (ASD group only) as measures of symptomatology.
Results: Route accuracy was lower for ASD+RA pairs, F=8.61, p = .007, suggesting less efficient route-drawing. Group differences held whether the participant or RA was drawing the route, indicating that group differences were not due to fine motor control. Correlational analyses across groups revealed that route accuracy was associated with global executive functions (BRIEF GEC scores), r = .55, p = .002, and with Vocabulary scores, r = -.38, p = .04 (correlations were similar within each group). When the participant was the Guide, route accuracy for ASD+RA pairs was associated with ADOS communication domain scores, r(14)=.60, p=.02; this was not the case when the RA was the guide, p =.46.
Conclusions: When describing navigational routes to a study-naïve RA, adolescents with ASD had greater difficulty in communicating about those routes; individual differences reflected both executive skills, and also ASD symptom severity (as indexed by the ADOS). Route accuracy was apparently influenced by communication strategies. Task discourse analyses (currently underway) of turn-taking, shared vocabulary, and clarification of misunderstandings, can reveal specific aspects of communication that promote or inhibit more effective communication. As such, findings will assist in identifying optimal targets for intervention, to support better communication.