Social Emotion Regulation Strategies in Toddlers with ASD

Saturday, May 14, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
A. Milgramm, S. Macari, L. DiNicola, P. Heymann, E. Hilton, K. K. Powell, S. F. Fontenelle and K. Chawarska, Yale Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT
Background: Emotion regulation (ER) encompasses the processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating emotional responsiveness (Bridges & Grolnick, 1995). Toddlers often use social interaction to assist in the regulation of their emotions. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often exhibit atypical emotional responses and also experience difficulties in social interactions. It is not clear if children with ASD differ from their non-ASD peers in their use of proximal (ProxER; i.e., physical contact with an adult) and distal (DistER; e.g., looking, vocalizing, smiling) social ER strategies. 

Objectives: (1) To compare frequency of ProxER and DistER strategy use in toddlers with and without ASD. (2) To investigate whether the use of these strategies is modulated by the emotional context of the situation. We hypothesized that toddlers with ASD exhibit fewer proximal and distal social ER strategies compared to the Non-ASD group across all emotional probes. 

Methods: Participants included 50 toddlers (ASD, n=20; Non-ASD, n=30) between 15 and 26 months of age (M=20 months) who completed the Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery (LabTAB; Goldsmith & Rothbart, 1999). The Non-ASD group consisted of typically developing and developmentally delayed toddlers. Nine tasks were presented in order to elicit three emotions: Frustration, Joy, and Fear. Videotaped sessions were coded offline by blinded coders. DistER strategies included pointing, vocalizing, talking, and making eye contact with the examiner or parent. ProxER strategies consisted of physical comfort seeking behaviors such as touching the parent or moving into the parent’s lap. Generalized linear mixed model (GLMM) analyses were used to examine the fixed effects of diagnostic group, emotion type, and their interactions on frequencies of DistER and ProxER.             

Results: Preliminary analyses indicated that both groups used more DistER than ProxER overall. Analysis of DistER revealed a main effect of diagnosis (F(1,144)=6.19, p<.05; Non-ASD>ASD), no effect of emotion, (p=.357), and a marginally significant interaction effect (F(2,144)=2.37, p=.097). Planned contrasts revealed that the groups differed in frequency of DistER strategies only in the Joy condition, such that ASD<NonASD (p=.003). Analysis of ProxER revealed a significant main effect of diagnosis (F(1,144)=5.0, p<.05; ASD>Non-ASD) and emotion type (F(2,144)=24.8, p<.05, Fear>Frustration=Joy), and a significant group x emotion interaction (F(2,144)=3.26, p<.05). Planned comparisons indicated that the groups differed only in the Joy condition, such that ASD>NonASD (p=.049; see Figure 1a&b).    

Conclusions: Overall, toddlers exhibited more distal than proximal social ER strategies, with toddlers seeking proximity to parents most frequently during Fear tasks. Both groups of toddlers used similar ER strategies in response to Fear and Frustration probes. However, while experiencing joy, toddlers with ASD were less likely to use ER strategies involving eye contact, pointing, or socially directed vocalizations and more likely to initiate physical contact. This increased use of proximal ER strategies may represent a lower level of social referencing by toddlers with ASD within contexts that encourage sharing emotions (e.g., joy) as opposed to seeking comfort (e.g., frustration, fear). Given that interventions for children with ASD often target social behaviors, these findings may help inform current approaches and lead to more effective outcomes.