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Emotion Regulation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Individual Differences and Influence of Parental Emotion Scaffolding

  • Author(s): Berkovits, Lauren Dawn
  • Advisor(s): Baker, Bruce L
  • Blacher, Janet B
  • et al.
Abstract

Previous research has documented tantrums and behavior problems, as well as deficits in emotion perception and labeling, among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but there has been little research seeking to understand and connect underlying emotion processes to the frequent behavior problems within this population. Additionally, few studies have explored the ways in which parents help teach children with ASD about emotions, though these processes are frequently studied among typically-developing children.

This study assessed emotion regulation deficits among young children with ASD (N = 108; ages 4-7) and explored child and family characteristics that longitudinally predict children’s emotion regulation development. Children’s emotion regulation was assessed at two time-points, approximately 9-10 months apart, along with a detailed measure of parental emotion scaffolding at the first time-point. Part I focused on the development of the coding system to capture parental scaffolding of children’s emotion understanding during a dyadic reading task. Part II explored children’s emotion regulation abilities, and Part III assessed the ability of parent emotion scaffolding to predict change in children’s emotional, social, and behavioral functioning.

Results indicated that the emotion scaffolding coding system could be reliability coded and that maternal emotion comments predicted child emotion talk above and beyond child IQ. Children exhibited largely stable levels of emotional, behavioral, and social functioning, with these three areas closely related across development. Higher levels of parental emotion scaffolding predicted improvements across time in emotion dysregulation and behavior problems by both parent- and teacher-report, but this link may be limited to children with higher initial levels of social skills. While parental emotion scaffolding did not directly relate to child social skills, there was evidence of an indirect effect of parental emotion scaffolding whereby children who exhibited reduced emotion dysregulation in turn showed improvements in social skills. Questions about emotions, in particular, were found to contribute to reductions in emotion dysregulation. These findings support the importance of focusing on emotion regulation as an underlying deficit for children with ASD, and highlight ways in which parent-child interactions can support children’s functioning across emotional, social, and behavioral domains. Intervention implications are discussed.

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