All ETDs from UAB

Advisory Committee Chair

Rajesh K Kana

Advisory Committee Members

Edwin W Cook, III

Donna L Murdaugh

Kristina M Visscher

Document Type

Dissertation

Date of Award

2021

Degree Name by School

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) College of Arts and Sciences

Abstract

Difficulties in social interaction are considered a core characteristic of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and have significant negative effects on quality of life in this population. Such deficits may reflect alterations in key areas of the “social brain” in ASD. Many clinical interventions for ASD seek to improve social interaction abilities, including the Program for Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®). PEERS® has demonstrated significant benefits for participants, but little is known about: 1) generalizability of the specific social knowledge gained to broader social cognitive processes, and 2) potential neuroplastic changes within the social brain in response to social knowledge acquisition. The present study tested the impact of the PEERS® intervention on social cognition and social brain function using tasks requiring increasingly distant levels of skill transfer. High functioning adolescents and young adults with ASD participating in PEERS® completed self- and parent-report measures of social functioning as well as a set of social cognition tasks in an fMRI scanner. These tasks assessed: 1) direct knowledge application via identifying PEERS® rules in social scenarios; 2) the moderately related construct of perspective-taking via self- and other-perspective processing of social or basic emotions; and 3) broader ToM (attribution of intentions to animated geometric figures). Participants completed these tasks at two time points (pre- and post-intervention) with the PEERS® intervention in-between. Results indicated changes at each level of transfer. Key findings include: 1) significantly increased social knowledge on the Test of Adolescent Social Skills Knowledge (TASSK), 2) increased post-intervention activity within the social brain (e.g., precuneus, IFG, ACC) across experimental conditions of the near transfer task, 3) more similar emotion ratings and neural activation between basic emotion versus social emotion, self-protagonist, and other-protagonist scenarios in the moderate transfer experiment, and 4) post-intervention activity in social brain regions previously found to be hypoactive in individuals with ASD while completing the far-transfer ToM task (e.g., right pSTS and IFG). The study provides preliminary support for the efficacy of the PEERS® intervention in producing generalized, systemic social cognitive improvements.

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