Emotion Dysregulation in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Friday, May 16, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
A. C. Samson1, A. Y. Hardan2, J. J. Gross1, J. M. Phillips2, Y. Arbab3 and R. W. Podell4, (1)Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, (2)Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, (3)Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, (4)Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Background:   Although not being a core feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), parents and clinicians have long noted the importance of emotion dysregulation in individuals with ASD (e.g., tantrums, meltdowns). 

Objectives:   The aim of the present study was to examine emotion dysregulation in children and adolescents with ASD, with a special focus on cognitive reappraisal, which involves thinking differently about an event in order to feel less negative. 

Methods:   Twenty-one high-functioning children and adolescents with ASD (mean age: 12.71 years, SD=3.62) and 22 gender- and age-matched typically developing (TD, mean age: 13.00 years, SD=2.99) controls completed the Reactivity and Regulation Situation Task (Carthy et al., 2010). This task assesses first emotional reactivity and spontaneous use of emotion regulation strategies (problem solving, cognitive reappraisal, avoidance, distraction, venting, suppression, and relaxation) in the context of ambiguous and potentially threatening negative scenarios. After the concept of cognitive reappraisal was explained, the scenarios were presented again, and the participants were prompted to use this strategy. 

Results:   Individuals with ASD exhibited the same level of reactivity to negative stimuli as TD participants. Furthermore, youth with ASD had a different emotion regulation profile than TD individuals, characterized by using cognitive reappraisal less frequently and by using suppression more frequently. When prompted to use cognitive reappraisal, participants with ASD were less able to implement, but benefitted from this strategy when they were able to generate a reappraisal. 

Conclusions:   Findings suggest that cognitive reappraisal may be useful to individuals with ASD. Therefore, the development of treatments that focuses on enhancing the use of adaptive forms of emotion regulation might decrease emotion dysregulation and optimize long-term outcomes in youth with ASD.