Dykens EM, Roof E, Hunt-Hawkins H, McDonald C.
Front Psychiatry. 2022 May 24;13:863999. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.863999. PMID: 35693970; PMCID: PMC9175568..
People with neurodevelopmental disabilities, including Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), are at heightened risk for the negative sequalae of loneliness, including depression and anxiety. While societal factors such as stigma or limited social opportunities contribute to loneliness, so too do deficits in social cognition and social skills. People with PWS have specific difficulties recognizing affect in others, accurately interpreting social interactions, and taking the perspectives of others. These features, combined with hyperphagia, rigidity, and insistence on sameness conspire to impede the abilities of people with PWS to make and sustain friendships and reduce feelings of loneliness.
We developed and administered an intervention, Building Our Social Skills (BOSS), that aimed to improve social skill deficits in PWS. The 10-week intervention was administered on-line via Zoom to 51 young people with PWS in the U.S. (M age = 20.8, SD = 6.42). Two clinicians co-led groups of 6–8 participants in 30-min sessions, 3 times per week, and also trained 4 graduate students to co-lead groups with high fidelity. We used a pre-post intervention and 3-month follow-up design, with no control group, and mitigated this design limitation by triangulating across informants and methodologies. Specifically, parents completed the widely used Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) and Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), and participants were individually interviewed about their friendships and loneliness. Interview responses were reliably coded by independent raters.
Repeated measure multivariate analyses, with baseline values entered as covariates, revealed significant pre-to post-test improvements in the SRS's social cognition, motivation and communication subscales (p's < 0.001), with large effect sizes (n2p = 0.920, 0.270, and 0.204, respectively). Participant and parental reports of loneliness were correlated with the CBCL's Internalizing domain, specifically the Anxiety/Depressed subdomain. Over time, parents reported getting along better with peers, increased contact with friends, more friends and less loneliness. Participants also reported significantly less loneliness and more friends.
This mixed method, proof-of-concept study demonstrated the feasibility of delivering an on-line social skills intervention to young people with PWS. As no differences were found between clinician vs. graduate student outcomes, the BOSS curriculum holds considerable promise for wider dissemination and implementation in the PWS community.