The aim of this research project was to develop and examine new assessment and treatment programs for children with Asperger Syndrome (AS). Specifically, the aim for the first study was to design and evaluate a new computerised, advanced theory of mind measure that could be used to evaluate treatment outcome in Phase 2 of the project. Vignettes for this measure, termed the 'Animated Theory of Mind Inventory for Children (ATOMIC)', were written by the chief investigator, and animated by a team of computer programmers. Following pilot testing and refinement, the final measure consisted of 18 cartoons and accompanying theory of mind, central coherence and memory control questions. Results showed that relative to the control participants (n = 25), children with AS matched on IQ, verbal comprehension, age, and gender (n = 25) performed equivalently on the ATOMIC central coherence questions, but more poorly on the theory of mind questions. However, there
was significant overlap between the theory of mind scores obtained by children with AS and typically developing controls, suggesting that either not all children with AS are impaired at attributing mental states to others, or that the ATOMIC theory of mind scale requires further refinement to enhance its sensitivity in detecting subtle mentalising deficits . A significant relationship was found between participants' performance on the ATOMIC theory of mind questions and the accuracy of the mental state explanations that they provided on Happé's (1994) Strange Stories Task, supporting the validity of the ATOMIC theory of mind scale. These findings suggest that theory of mind deficits may not characterize all individuals with AS, and in cases where they are evident, they cannot be solely attributed to generalised problems in integrating information. Limitations of the study and suggestions for future research are discussed.
The second study for this
research program involved the design and evaluation of a new social skills intervention for children with Asperger Syndrome: the Junior Detective Training Program. The development of this intervention is discussed in detail, with the final 7-week program consisting of a computer game, small group therapy sessions, parent training sessions and teacher information handouts. Results showed that relative to children in a wait-list control group (n=23), children who participated in the therapy program (n=26) showed greater improvements in social skills over the course of the intervention, as indicated by parent-report measures. Teacher-report data also suggested that children involved in the therapy program made significant improvements in social functioning from pre- to post-treatment. Child-based competency measures indicated that children in the treatment group were better able to suggest appropriate emotion-management strategies for story characters post-intervention than at
pre-intervention, whereas children in the control group were not. However, children who participated in the therapy program did not appear to make greater improvements on theory of mind measures over the course of the treatment than matched controls. Follow-up data suggested that treatment gains in social functioning were maintained by children at 5-months post-intervention. When control participants were offered the treatment program, they demonstrated similar gains in social and emotional understanding over the course of therapy as the initial treatment recipients, providing further support for the efficacy of the intervention. Implications of the present findings and suggestions for future research are discussed.