Some parents of children with low functioning autism show evidence of impaired social cognition and working memory.
A brief review of: Sezen Gokcen, Emre Bora, Serpil Erermis, Hande Kesikci, Cahide Aydin (2009). Theory of mind and verbal working memory deficits in parents of autistic children Psychiatry Research, 166 (1), 46-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2007.11.016
I have written several times about the “broader autism phenotype” (see for example here and here). In sum, there is some evidence that a subgroup of children with autism have parents (usually the father) who show sub-clinical symptoms of autism. In the present article the authors compared 38 parents of children with low functioning autism and 41 parents of typically developing children. These parents completed a battery of tests that included IQ, working memory, visual perception, and social cognition.
The two groups of parents did not differ in IQ (both near the average score of 100). The parents also did not differ in age, education, or anxiety. However, on average, parents of children with autism performed significantly worse on a task of verbal working memory, and two tasks of social cognition, namely: the Eyes Decoding Test and the Unexpected Outcomes Test. The Eyes Decoding Test assesses a person’s ability to identify emotions only by observing a person’s eyes. The Unexpected Outcomes Test assesses a person’s ability to reason about possible explanations when a hypothetical character has an emotional reaction that is inconsistent with the situation that elicited such emotional reaction.
These results are surprising in a number of ways. First, the deficits observed in these parents were not unique to fathers. This is inconsistent with some previous studies that have suggested that the ‘broader autism phenotype’ usually applies mostly to fathers. Similarly, this study included only parents of children with low functioning autism. This is also significant because most previous studies have indicated that the broader autism phenotype is mostly observed only in parents of children with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism.
The authors also found much higher levels of depressive symptoms among the parents of children with autism. This makes me wonder whether some of the relative weaknesses observed among these parents are due to depression. This is an interesting possibility since depression has been found to affect performance on neuropsychological tests, including working memory. However, it is less clear whether depression affects performance on social cognition tests. Yet, the authors explained that the presence of depression was likely not a factor as it was not associated with scores in working memory of social cognition.
All in all, these results provide evidence for the presence of relative deficits in working memory and some social cognition tasks among mothers and fathers of children with low functioning autism when compared to parents of typically developing children.
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