The capacity to experience social and nonsocial pleasure moderated the relationship between symptoms of autism and loneliness, according to study data published in Autism Research.
Investigators recruited 107 adults age 18 to 35 from 3 diagnostic cohorts: 49 individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), 30 typically-developing adults with a current depressive disorder (TD-depressed), and 28 typically developing adults with no history of ASD or depression/anxiety (TD-controls). The Social Responsiveness Scale, 2nd edition (SRS-2), was employed as a metric of autism symptoms; the Anticipatory and Consummatory Interpersonal Pleasure Scale (ACIPS) and Temporal Experience of Pleasure Scale (TEPS) were used to assess capacity for social and nonsocial pleasure, respectively. Depressive symptoms and loneliness were captured using the Beck Depression Inventory-II and the Loneliness in Context Questionnaire, respectively. Statistical analyses were conducted to detect between-group differences and assess the relationship between SRS-2 scores and loneliness.
The TD-control group demonstrated significantly higher levels of social and nonsocial pleasure compared with the TD-depression and ASD groups, which were not statistically different from one another. A greater SRS-2 score predicted increased loneliness and depressive symptoms in the whole sample, combined TD groups, and patients with ASD alone. Patients with ASD had the greatest SRS-2 scores, while TD-controls had the lowest. Per linear regression, both ACIPS and TEPS significantly moderated the relationship between SRS-2 and loneliness (both P =.01). This effect was not specific to any SRS-2 domain.
Per the ACIPS × SRS-2 interaction, individuals with a lower capacity for social pleasure exhibited greater levels of loneliness regardless of their degree of autism symptoms, while individuals with a greater capacity for social pleasure demonstrated a positive relationship between SRS-score and loneliness. A similar conclusion was drawn from the SRS-2 × TEPS interaction: individuals with a greater capacity for nonsocial pleasure showed a positive relationship between SRS-2 and loneliness, while individuals with a lower capacity for nonsocial pleasure were lonelier overall. Loneliness was also found to be the strongest predictor of depressive symptoms in the total sample (P <.001), combined TD sample (P <.001), and ASD sample alone (P =.001).
“The current study suggests that variability in hedonic capacity across the autism spectrum may differentially confer risk for depression in adults with ASD,” the investigators wrote. “Real-world skills-based and behavioral interventions that target loneliness or increase positive social feedback and opportunity will likely improve emotional health in adults with ASD,” they concluded.
Han GT, Tomarken AJ, Gotham KO. Social and nonsocial reward moderate the relation between autism symptoms and loneliness in adults with ASD, depression, and controls [published online March 2, 2019]. Autism Res. doi:10.1002/aur.2088