A Dynamic Systems Approach to Emotion Coregulation in Families of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Families of Typically Developing Children

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
Y. Guo1, W. A. Goldberg1, D. R. Garfin1 and A. R. Ly2, (1)University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA, (2)University of Delaware, Newark, DE
Background:  Parent-child coregulation lays the foundation for the development of adaptive skills and future self-regulation in child. Emotional dysregulation is one of core symptoms in children with autism. Previous research on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has focused primarily on children’s ability to recognize and describe emotional experiences.  Little is known about role of the dynamic interplay between parents and their young children with ASD in emotion regulation. Impaired emotional regulation may hallmark behavioral rigidity in ASD. However, there is no study examining dyadic flexibility which indicates dyad’s ability to shift emotional states.

Objectives: To compare moment-to-moment processes of emotion coregulation between dyads of mother-child with ASD and dyads of mother-typically developing (TD) child in terms of dyadic flexibility and emotional content using a dynamic systems method.

Methods: Seventy-four dyads of mothers and children (47 ASD dyads and 27 TD dyads) participated in a 10-minute Three Boxes procedure at home. An original coding scheme was developed to evaluate positive engagement, negative engagement, and disengagement in dyadic mother-child interaction every five-second intervals using Mangold International’s INTERACT 9.47 software. Inter-coder reliability for child and mother engagement was 91.07% (k = .82) and 91.76% (k = .81).  The observation data were imported into the State Space Grid (SSG) software to operationalize dyadic flexibility indicated by dispersion (higher values indicating more flexibility or wider range of dyadic engagement states), transition (higher values indicating more flexibility or  frequent changes in dyadic engagement states) and average mean duration (AMD: lower values indicating more flexibility or spending short times in a particular dyadic engagement state), and emotional content of coregulation indicated by five regions marked in the SSG: (1) mutual positive (both mother and child showed positive engagement), (2) mutual negative (both mother and child showed negative engagement), (3) child negative/mother positive, (4) child positive/mother negative, and (5) child object(child engaged only with toy/objects). T-tests and OLS regressions controlling for maternal education and child age were used to analyze the data.

Results: As expected, in comparison to TD dyads, ASD mother-child dyads had more frequent engagements that were mutually negative, child negative/mother positive and child object-focused; also, ASD child negative/mother positive engagements were of longer duration. Mutual positive engagements were shorter in duration, but more frequent. Surprisingly, ASD dyads exhibited greater flexibility compared to TD dyads, indicating by higher dispersion and higher transition and lower AMD (see Table 1).

Conclusions:  To our knowledge, this study is the first to examine emotion coregulation process in mothers and children with ASD using the State Space Grid method. The findings suggest that flexibility and emotional content of coregulation are congruent. Constant change between positive and negative dyadic engagement support the idea that unstable structures of dyadic interactions may be observed in ASD dyads. The dynamic systems approach to assessing emotional coregulation in families with a child with ASD has both research and therapeutic implications.