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Original Investigation
October 18, 2021

Behavioral Intervention for Social Challenges in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Author Affiliations
  • 1Clinical Sciences, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Royal Children’s Hospital, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
  • 2Department of Paediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
  • 3Department of Psychology, Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia
JAMA Pediatr. Published online October 18, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.3982
Key Points

Question  Are behavioral interventions associated with improvement in social function and social cognition among children and adolescents experiencing social challenges?

Findings  In this systematic review and meta-analysis of 2163 participants in 33 randomized clinical trials, significantly greater gains in social function and social cognition were found among children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental or mental health diagnoses who received behavioral intervention than among comparator control groups.

Meaning  The findings suggest that children and adolescents with social deficits may benefit from social skills training regardless of their neurodevelopmental or mental health diagnosis.

Abstract

Importance  Social deficits are a common and disabling feature of many pediatric disorders; however, whether behavioral interventions are associated with benefits for children and adolescents with social deficits is poorly understood.

Objective  To assess whether behavioral interventions in children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental or mental health disorders are associated with improvements in social function and social cognition, and whether patient, intervention, and methodological characteristics moderate the association.

Data Sources  For this systematic review and meta-analysis, the PsycINFO, MEDLINE, and PubMed electronic databases were searched in December 2020 for randomized clinical trials published from database inception to December 1, 2020, including terms related to neurodevelopmental or mental health disorders, social behavior, randomized clinical trials, and children and adolescents. Data were analyzed in January 2021.

Study Selection  Randomized clinical trials that enrolled participants aged 4 to 17 years with social deficits and examined the efficacy of a clinician-administered behavioral intervention targeting social functioning or social cognition were included. A total of 9314 records were identified, 78 full texts were assessed for eligibility, and 33 articles were included in the study; 31 of these reported social function outcomes and 12 reported social cognition outcomes.

Data Extraction and Synthesis  Articles were reviewed using the Cochrane Risk of Bias Assessment for randomized clinical trials. Data were independently extracted and pooled using a weighted random-effects model.

Main Outcomes and Measures  The main outcome was the association of behavioral intervention with social function and social cognition. Hedges g was used to measure the standardized mean difference between intervention and control groups. Standardized effect sizes were calculated for the intervention group vs the comparison group for each trial.

Results  A total of 31 trials including 2131 participants (1711 [80%] male; 420 [20%] female; mean [SD] age, 10.8 [2.2] years) with neurodevelopmental or mental health disorders (autism spectrum disorder [ASD] [n = 23], attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [n = 4], other conditions associated with social deficits [n = 4]) were analyzed to examine differences in social function between the intervention and control groups. Significantly greater gains in social function were found among participants who received an intervention than among the control groups (Hedges g, 0.61; 95% CI, 0.40-0.83; P < .001). The type of control condition (wait list vs active control vs treatment as usual) was a significant moderator of effect size (Q2, 7.11; P = .03). Twelve studies including 487 individuals with ASD (48 [10%] female; 439 [90%] male; mean [SD] age, 10.4 [1.7] years) were analyzed to examine differences in social cognition between intervention and control groups. The overall mean weighted effect was significant (Hedges g, 0.67; 95% CI, 0.39-0.96; P < .001), indicating the treatment groups had better performance on social cognitive tasks.

Conclusions and Relevance  In this systematic review and meta-analysis, significantly greater gains in social function and social cognition were reported among children and adolescents who received behavioral interventions for social deficits compared with participants receiving the control conditions. These findings suggest that children and adolescents with social deficits might benefit from social skills training regardless of their specific neurodevelopmental or mental health diagnosis.

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