Is He Being Bad? Social and Language Brain Networks during Social Judgment in Children with Autism
Individuals with autism often violate social rules and have lower accuracy in identifying and explaining inappropriate social behavior. Twelve children with autism (AD) and thirteen children with typical development (TD) participated in this fMRI study of the neurofunctional basis of social judgment. Participants indicated in which of two pictures a boy was being bad (Social condition) or which of two pictures was outdoors (Physical condition). In the within-group Social-Physical comparison, TD children used components of mentalizing and language networks [bilateral inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), bilateral medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and bilateral posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)], whereas AD children used a network that was primarily right IFG and bilateral pSTS, suggesting reduced use of social and language networks during this social judgment task. A direct group comparison on the Social-Physical contrast showed that the TD group had greater mPFC, bilateral IFG, and left superior temporal pole activity than the AD group. No regions were more active in the AD group than in the group with TD in this comparison. Both groups successfully performed the task, which required minimal language. The groups also performed similarly on eyetracking measures, indicating that the activation results probably reflect the use of a more basic strategy by the autism group rather than performance disparities. Even though language was unnecessary, the children with TD recruited language areas during the social task, suggesting automatic encoding of their knowledge into language; however, this was not the case for the children with autism. These findings support behavioral research indicating that, whereas children with autism may recognize socially inappropriate behavior, they have difficulty using spoken language to explain why it is inappropriate. The fMRI results indicate that AD children may not automatically use language to encode their social understanding, making expression and generalization of this knowledge more difficult. © 2012 Carter et al.