Social cognition in children with learning disabilities

Michal Shaked and Nurit Yirmiya

in Social Cognition and Developmental Psychopathology

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780198569183
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754432 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Social cognition in children with learning disabilities

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The development of individuals with learning disabilities has been of interest to researchers in various fields of study for many decades. One of the main areas of interest has been the classification of individuals with learning disabilities by aetiology. This refers first to a specification of two groups of learning disabilities: those with familial retardation, and those with organic retardation (Burack 1990). The latter group can further be classified according to one of several hundred pre-, peri-, or postnatal aetiologies that are associated with impairments in cognitive and social functioning (Hodapp et al. 1998). As research develops in these areas, specific developmental and behavioural profiles, termed behavioural phenotypes (Simonoff et al. 1998), are identified for specific aetiological groups. For example, in boys with fragile X syndrome, a specific weakness in sequential processing is found which is not evident in individuals with other aetiologies of learning disabilities such as Down syndrome (Hodapp et al. 1992). These behavioural phenotypes include strengths and weaknesses in areas of social as well as cognitive functioning. For instance, in boys with fragile X syndrome, social and communicative difficulties are also apparent (Simonoff et al. 1998).

In developmental research, studies of typical and atypical development complement each other. Thus an understanding of the sequence of development in communication and social abilities enables a clearer understanding of specific strengths and weakness of individuals with different diagnoses. In addition, tracing the specific abilities and developmental trajectories of certain individuals in one area of development helps to clarify the cognitive, perceptual, and emotional components and the complex interactions between these components in bringing about a certain behaviour or ability, as well as the genetic and environmental basis of these behaviours.

In the area of social cognition, two of the most intensively researched aetiologies are those of autism and Williams syndrome (WS). In this chapter we shall focus on the latter syndrome. Clinical evidence has called attention to a specific behavioural phenotype in individuals with WS, including a profound interest in social interactions, a tendency for social garrulity, and a lack of proper social distinctions in social encounters. This evidence has led to a growing interest in WS, from the perspective of social cognition and development, as an example of the possible effects of genes on social abilities and behaviours. As this research advances, it also serves to exemplify the immense complexity of social understanding and behaviour, in its various perceptual, cognitive, and emotional components.

In what follows, we shall summarize the findings concerning social cognition in individuals with WS, especially as they have been studied using two experimental paradigms—theory of mind and face-processing. These paradigms are the most widely used in social cognition research, tapping both cognitive and perceptual components of this ability. In addition, we shall attempt to contribute to the discussion of this syndrome, emphasizing the need to clarify methodological issues in studies of social cognition, as well as the importance of integrating environmental and genetic data to understand the social abilities of individuals with WS. Finally, we shall discuss the consequences of this debate for intervention with individuals who have WS.

Chapter.  9415 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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