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King Creativity at Southwestern

Autism and Executive Function: The Effects of Motivational Accommodations on Task Performance

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    Photograph: Emily Taylor

Samantha Borrego, Christine Chalmers, and Candace Stockton
Faculty Sponsor: Dr. Jacqueline Muir-Broaddus

The purpose of the study is to assess the effects of motivational/attentional accommodations on executive function (EF) tasks on children with autism. It aims to determine if deficits occur due to competence or performance, as this aspect has largely been ignored by researchers.

In the pilot study, participants were dizygotic 7-year-old twin boys who are discordant for autism. Both children completed the tasks under two experimental conditions; the standard testing condition (SC) followed standard procedures and the motivational/attentional condition (MAC) incorporated individually tailored accommodations. As predicted, the results for this study revealed that accommodations significantly improved performance for both twins on the Tower task. Specifically, the twin with autism scored 4 in the standard condition and 10 with accommodations and the normal co-twin scored 8 in the standard condition and 13 with accommodations (scores are standard scores, M = 10, SD = 3). Hence, accommodations brought the twin with autism from 2 SDs below the mean to the normal range (NEPSY norms provide a mean of 6.8 for same-age children with autism). The normal co-twin also performed significantly better with accommodations but in both conditions was in the normal range. Also as predicted, accommodations did not affect performance on the ToM tasks. Differences between conditions were not expected here because ToM tasks assess conceptual understanding and do not require sustained attention. Rather, in both conditions and consistent with past research, the normal co-twin responded correctly and the twin with autism did not. Finally, contrary to predictions, performance on the Knock-tap test was unaffected by accommodations, as both children performed in the normal range in both conditions (raw scores ranged from 26-28; normative M = 28.2, SD = 2.3).

These results suggested that motivational/attentional accommodations were effective for tasks that make high cognitive demands, such as the Tower task, which requires planning and sustained attention and effort. However, they did not affect performance for tasks with low cognitive demands, such as the Knock-tap, which requires only simple motor movements and inhibition. To confirm these results, a follow-up study was conducted involving four boys (7, 7, 9, & 12 years) with autism in which condition order was counter-balanced within and between participants to control for practice effects (i.e., for half the tasks and for half the participants, the MAC preceded SC).

The results of the follow-up study showed that motivational accommodations improved task performance. Of the 16 scores (4 tasks x 4 participants), 13 scores (81%) were better in the MAC than the SC. Three participants did better in the MAC than the SC for three of four tasks and one participant did better in the MAC than the SC for all tasks. The absence of a clear pattern of score differences across the counterbalanced orders suggests that these results are not simply practice effects.

We are hoping to test at least two more children with autism. After testing is complete, more definite conclusions and explorations of the results will be formed. In addition, the relationship between EF task performance and TOM task performance will be investigated. These conclusions and results should be finished by the end of March.