Examining the Role of Inhibitory Control in the Emotion Regulation Strategies Employed By Toddlers with and without ASD

Saturday, May 14, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
L. DiNicola1, S. Macari1, L. Flink2, S. F. Fontenelle1, G. Greco3, P. Heymann1, E. Hilton1, S. S. Lansiquot4, A. Milgramm1, K. K. Powell1 and K. Chawarska1, (1)Yale Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (2)Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, (3)Boston Children's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, (4)School of Nursing, Columbia University, New York, NY
Background: Emotion regulation (ER) involves the modification of emotional expressions and behaviors (Fuster et al., 2008). Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit marked ER difficulties, particularly in frustrating contexts (Jahromi et al., 2012), but the mechanisms underlying these ER problems are unclear (Mazefsky et al., 2013). Within typically developing (TD) preschool-aged children, executive functioning (EF) skills, particularly those involved in inhibitory control, appear to influence ER abilities (Carlson & Wang, 2007). The potential relationship between ER and inhibitory control in young children with ASD has yet to be explored.

Objectives: (1) Determine if differences in inhibitory control appear during toddlerhood between children with and without ASD. (2) Examine the relationship between inhibitory control skills and ER strategies employed within frustrating contexts. 

Methods: 24 toddlers aged 18-24 months, 14 with ASD (Mage = 21.42 months) and 10 TD (Mage= 20.28 months) completed the Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery, Locomotor Version (LabTAB; Goldsmith et al., 1999). LabTAB includes three frustrating tasks: (1) restraint within a car seat, (2) removal of a toy from reach, and (3) blocked access to a toy through a parent’s physical restraint. During each task, behavioral measures of negative affect (ratings of facial, bodily and vocal anger) and ER strategies (occurrence of disengagement, self-soothing, self-stimulating, social overtures, undirected bids for attention, and physical comfort-seeking) were coded by blind raters. ER scores indicating the proportion of trials in which each strategy was employed were derived, excluding trials in which no negative affect was observed. Inhibitory control skills were reported by parents through the Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire (ECBQ; Putnam, Gartstein, & Rothbart, 2006).

Results: Toddlers with ASD had significantly lower inhibitory control scores (M = 2.67) than TD toddlers (M = 3.69), F(1, 22) = 8.469, p < 0.01. For each ER strategy, between-group comparisons indicated no significant differences in occurrence scores. Pearson’s r correlations were performed between the ECBQ inhibitory control scores and each ER score within each diagnostic group. No significant correlations were found for toddlers with ASD. However, within the TD group, inhibitory control scores were significantly correlated with both disengagement (r  = 0.65, p < 0.05) and physical comfort seeking (r = 0.62, p = 0.056). 

Conclusions: Differences in inhibitory control skills between individuals with ASD and TD emerge as young as toddlerhood. Toddlers in both diagnostic groups appear to employ similar ER strategies within frustrating contexts; however, the mechanisms underlying the use of these strategies may diverge between groups early in development. Within our sample, TD toddlers with higher inhibitory control scores were more likely than intragroup peers to disengage from the source of frustration and seek physical comfort from a parent. This suggests an early-emerging link between the ability to control behavior in everyday situations and the coping strategies chosen within frustrating contexts for TD toddlers but not those with ASD. Elucidating these differences may provide clues pertaining to ER impairments associated with ASD and may inform pathways to treatment. Full-sample analyses of 50 toddlers will be presented at IMFAR.