Schizophrenia and high functioning autism (HFA) are both marked by certain social and cognitive impairments. A study by Couturel, Penn, Losh, Adolphs, Hurley, and Piven (2010) explored the differences in social cognitive skills between those with these two conditions. They used a series of tests that challenges parts of the brain that are known to be involved in the processing of social skills. This study compared a group consisting of schizophrenics, a group consisting of HFA, and a non-clinical control group on these tasks. They found that there were similarities in social cognition deficits between the schizophrenia and HFA groups. However, when the researchers divided the schizophrenia group into negative symptom and paranoia, the HFA groups was more similar to the negative symptom group, than the paranoia group.

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It is common thought that impairments in social cognition are more pervasive in HFA individuals than in those with schizophrenia. This research indicates that this is not the case and that in many areas they are quite similar. This research indicates that people with schizophrenia have just as much social impairment as those with HFA (Couturel, Penn, Losh, & Adolphs et al, 2010). It is possible that the perception that those with HFA have a higher degree of social impairment stems from the amount of information and media that has covered the topic. More attention has been paid to those with HFA, with significant mass media campaigns meant to bring awareness about autism. By comparison, schizophrenia had had very little coverage in terms of bringing knowledge and awareness of the topic to the public. People in the general public know very little about schizophrenia, but most are familiar with the signs and characteristics of autism due to the media coverage.

The results of this study found that when specific functions of social perception were examined, those with schizophrenia performed more poorly on the recognition of positive emotions and those with autism performed more poorly on the recognition of negative emotions (Couturel, Penn, Losh, & Adolphs et al, 2010). Although the study did not have sufficient affect size to draw a definitive conclusion on this matter, it does indicate that there is some directional bias to this affect that indicates a need for further examination.

These findings indicate that it is now time to open a new dialogue in research and in the clinical setting about social cognitive impairment. This research indicates that not all social cognitive impairment is the same. It also indicates that more attention needs to be paid to the social cognitive impairment that occurs in schizophrenia and in other related mental health conditions. These findings have significant implications for the clinical settings. They indicate that treating social cognition problems in persons with schizophrenia and HFA may require a different approach. It may be prudent to focus on the recognition of positive emotions in schizophrenics and on negative emotions in HFA.

The research examined in this analysis provides a new view of social cognition impairments. Not all social cognitive impairments are the same and there is reason to examine treatment protocols to make certain that they are still relevant. Understanding the similarities and differences between various types of social cognition impairment and the number of different conditions that are involved with this symptom are important steps to helping these people to live a more active and social lifestyle. This can help to improve their cognitive functioning in other areas too. Impaired social skills are an essential component of having a better quality of life.

This makes this area an important consideration in future research studies. Understand the pathways to social cognitive impairment could further delineate the treatment approaches that are needed to help these unique groups of individuals.

  • Couturel, S., Penn, D., Losh, M., Adolphs, R. Hurley, R. & Piven, J. (2010). Comparison of
    social cognitive functioning in schizophrenia and high functioning autism: more
    convergence than divergence. Psychological Medicine. 40: 569-579.