Background: The assessment of social attribution skills in children can potentially identify and quantify developmental difficulties related to autism spectrum disorders and related conditions. However, relatively little is known about how these skills develop in typically developing children. Therefore the present study aimed to map the trajectory of social attribution skill acquisition in typically developing children from a young age.
Methods: In the conventional social attribution task (SAT) participants ascribe feelings to moving shapes and describe their interaction in social terms. However, this format requires that participants understand both, that an inanimate shape is symbolic, and that its action is social in nature. This may be challenging for young children, and may be a potential confounder in studies of children with developmental disorders. Therefore we developed a modified SAT (mSAT) using animate figures (e.g. animals) to simplify the task. We used the SAT and mSAT to examine social attribution skill development in 154 healthy children (76 boys, 78 girls), ranging in age from 6 to 13 years and investigated the relationship between social attribution ability and executive function.
Results: The mSAT revealed a steady improvement in social attribution skills from the age of 6 years, and a significant advantage for girls compared to boys. In contrast, children under the age of 9 years performed at baseline on the conventional format and there were no gender differences apparent. Performance on neither task correlated with executive function after controlling for age and verbal IQ, suggesting that social attribution ability is independent of cognitive functioning. The present findings indicate that the mSAT is a sensitive measure of social attribution skills from a young age. This should be carefully considered when choosing assessments for young children and those with developmental disorders.