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Early Predictors of Emotional Knowledge and Expression in Atypical Development


Many studies have documented the importance of emotional knowledge for later social competence in typical children (e.g., Denham, 1986; Dunn & Cutting, 1999; Schultz, Izard, Ackerman, & Youngstrom, 2001). However, less is known about the factors that lead to the development of these skills, or the growth trajectories of these skills in children with developmental disabilities. The aims of this longitudinal study were: (1) to examine the specificity and uniqueness of emotional understanding and expression in atypical populations, and (2) to identify if joint attention skills in early development are predictive of greater emotional understanding and increased positive reported expression of emotions at an older age. The initial sample consisted of 135 children: 37 with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), 66 with Down syndrome (DS), and 32 with other developmental delays (DD). At entry children were rated on initiations and responses to joint attention at a mean age of 3.17 years. At follow-up, 122 of the original children were assessed again, at a mean age of 10.7 years, on emotional labeling, identification, expression, and empathy. The ASD group had a lower rate of responding to joint attention at entry. Diagnostic group differences were also found for the DD group, with more negative expressed emotions as rated by parents, but there were no difference in teacher report of negative expressed emotions in the classroom. The DS group performed significantly worse on a number of expressive measures: labeling of negative emotions, identification of both positive and negative emotions, and empathy to a positive vignette. However, when given the same tasks receptively, the DS group did not perform significantly different than the other two diagnostic groups. Early initiations of nonverbal joint attention gestures predicted greater parent reported positive emotional expression, holding diagnostic groups constant with a coefficient of determination equal to .224. These results suggest that improvements in joint attention at a young age may have long-term consequences for later expressive affect in children with developmental disabilities. These data are consistent with other research that has found concurrent associations between joint attention and positive affect (Kasari et al., 1990) and increases in positive affect due to joint attention training (Lawton & Kasari, 2012).

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