The Importance of Executive Function for the Social Competence of Boys with ASD

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 3, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
N. Berard1, P. R. Sevigny2 and L. Loutzenhiser3, (1)Saskatchewan Health Authority, Regina, SK, Canada, (2)Educational Psychology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada, (3)Psychology, University of Regina, Regina, SK, Canada
Background: While many studies have argued that cognitive processes are associated with social functioning deficits in ASD, little research has explicitly examined the associations between executive functioning and social competence. There has been even less comparative research exploring the differences in these associations between neurotypical children and children with ASD.

Objectives: The purpose of this study was two-fold. First, we sought to explore the similarities and differences in performance on standardized executive function (EF) measures between school-aged boys with high functioning autism and a control group of neurotypical boys. Second, we explored the relationship between EF and parent ratings of child social competence.

Methods: A sample of 97 boys, aged 8-13 years and their parent(s) participated in this study. The clinical group consisted of 49 boys with ASD recruited from three provincially-based Autism support programs and a social media forum for parents of children with ASD. Parents provided diagnostic reports or their consent to access health records to confirm diagnoses. The control group consisted of 48 boys without mental health diagnoses or learning disabilities recruited from the local community. Children were administered a measure of intellectual functioning to estimate IQ and 5 standardized EF measures. Parents completed 2 standardized measures assessing their perceptions of their child’s social competence.

Results: The control group’s performance was statistically better than the ASD group on the IQ estimate, auditory attention, visual working memory, auditory inhibition reaction time and auditory inhibition errors. Unsurprisingly, children in the control group were rated by their parents as significantly more socially competent than children in the ASD group. To examine predictors of parent-rated social competence, first, a single social competence composite was derived by combining the 2 social competence scales. Second, to ensure EF measures were assessed using the same metric, z-scores were calculated. Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted for the ASD and control group separately. Age and estimated IQ were entered on the first block and the 5 performance based EF scores were entered on the second block. For the control group, the regression was not statistically significant, accounting for only 11% of the variance. In contrast, the regression equation for the ASD group was statistically significant and accounted for 61% of the variance in social competence ratings. Significant predictors of better social competence were younger age, higher auditory attention, higher visual working memory, higher visual inhibition and lower auditory inhibition speed.

Conclusions: Boys with ASD demonstrated significantly poorer executive and social functioning than their similar aged neurotypical peers. For typically developing children, executive function abilities do not predict parent ratings of social competence. However, for boys with ASD, these same EF abilities had a substantial influence on parent perceptions of social competence. Our findings highlight how cognitive differences may underpin observed social impairments in those with high functioning ASD and have potentially broad implications for the conceptualization and implementation of interventions.