Integrating intention and context: assessing social cognition in adults with Asperger syndrome

Front Hum Neurosci. 2012 Nov 8;6:302. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00302. eCollection 2012.

Abstract

Deficits in social cognition are an evident clinical feature of the Asperger syndrome (AS). Although many daily life problems of adults with AS are related to social cognition impairments, few studies have conducted comprehensive research in this area. The current study examined multiple domains of social cognition in adults with AS assessing the executive functions (EF) and exploring the intra and inter-individual variability. Fifteen adult's diagnosed with AS and 15 matched healthy controls completed a battery of social cognition tasks. This battery included measures of emotion recognition, theory of mind (ToM), empathy, moral judgment, social norms knowledge, and self-monitoring behavior in social settings. We controlled for the effect of EF and explored the individual variability. The results indicated that adults with AS had a fundamental deficit in several domains of social cognition. We also found high variability in the social cognition tasks. In these tasks, AS participants obtained mostly subnormal performance. EF did not seem to play a major role in the social cognition impairments. Our results suggest that adults with AS present a pattern of social cognition deficits characterized by the decreased ability to implicitly encode and integrate contextual information in order to access to the social meaning. Nevertheless, when social information is explicitly presented or the situation can be navigated with abstract rules, performance is improved. Our findings have implications for the diagnosis and treatment of individuals with AS as well as for the neurocognitive models of this syndrome.

Keywords: Asperger syndrome; contextual social cognition; executive functions; individual variability.