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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Responsive Parenting, Gene-Environment Interactions, and Heterogeneous Social Development in Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Author(s): Caplan, Barbara
  • Advisor(s): Baker, Bruce L
  • et al.

Although autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is defined by core deficits in social communication and social interaction, there is considerable heterogeneity in social functioning among individuals with ASD. Relatively little is known about the origins and development of these individual differences. Emerging research suggests that family environments and genetic variants independently contribute to social functioning in youth with ASD, yet a better understanding of how these factors interact is necessary to: (1) parse apart factors that contribute to social heterogeneity in ASD and (2) develop and select optimal treatments based on individual characteristics. The present studies took an interdisciplinary approach to examine how early parenting quality and child genetics interact to predict trajectories of social functioning in youth with ASD. Participants were 176 families of children aged 4-7 years with ASD selected from a longitudinal study of developmental processes in ASD. Responsive parenting was rated within the context of free play parent-child interactions. Social development was assessed through multi-rater (parent, teacher) report of child social skills across three time points spanning 1.5 years. Study 1 examined the role of responsive parenting in predicting variation in child social development. Study 2 assessed biologically plausible candidate genes [serotonin transport gene (5-HTTLPR); oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR); dopamine receptor gene (DRD4)] as markers of susceptibility to environmental influence and mechanisms of genetically-informed environmental sensitivity. Specifically, Study 2 evaluated: (a) the additive and interactive effects of 5-HTTLPR, OXTR, DRD4 and responsive parenting in predicting social development in ASD, and (b) whether child emotion regulation mediates observed responsive parenting x child genotype interactions on social development. Initial levels of responsive parenting positively predicted prospective change in social skills by teacher report, and in parent-report models controlling for OXTR genotypes. 5-HTTLPR and DRD4, but not OXTR were found to interact with responsive parenting to predict growth in child social skills; interactions were not mediated by emotion regulation. Findings illuminate pathways of biopsychosocial models of development in ASD and stand to inform targeted, parent-mediated interventions.

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