Social cognitive and emotion processing abilities of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: a comparison with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2009 Oct;33(10):1656-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2009.01003.x. Epub 2009 Jul 15.


Background: Although children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) are at high risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), direct comparisons show distinct cognitive phenotypes in the 2 diagnoses. However, these groups have not been directly compared for social problems or social cognition, nor has social cognition been directly examined in FASDs.

Objectives: To compare FASDs and ADHD groups on social cognition tasks and determine whether deficient social cognition and emotion processing predict behavioral problems and social skills.

Methods: Studied were 33 children with FASDs, 30 with ADHD, and 34 normal controls (NC). All received tasks of social cognition and emotion processing. Parents and teachers rated children on measures of completed questionnaires assessing child's behavioral problems and social skills using the Child Behavior Checklist, Teacher Report Form, and Social Skills Rating Scale. Children received 3 subtests from the Saltzman-Benaiah and Lalonde (2007) Theory of Mind Task as a measure of social cognition and 4 subtests from the Minnesota Test of Affective Processing (Lai et al., 1991) to assess emotion processing.

Results: Parents and teachers reported more behavior problems and poorer social skills in children in FASD and ADHD than NC groups. FASDs demonstrated significantly weaker social cognition and facial emotion processing ability than ADHD and NC groups. Regression analyses identified social cognition as a significant predictor of behavior problems and emotion processing as a significant predictor of social skills.

Conclusions: Children with FASDs show a distinct behavioral profile from children with ADHD. Difficulties in social cognition and emotion processing in children with FASDs may contribute to their high incidence of social behavioral problems.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / psychology*
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence Tests
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Regression Analysis
  • Social Behavior*