Cognitive Control and Negative Affect: A Dimensional Approach to Self-Regulation in Autism and Other Childhood Psychopathologies and Developmental Disorders

Saturday, May 17, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
B. Yerys1, R. T. Schultz2, L. D. Antezana3 and J. Herrington4, (1)The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, (2)Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, (3)Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, (4)University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

Self-regulation enables individuals to make decisions, control impulses or thoughts, and to engage in pro-social behavior. Impaired self-regulation contributes to pervasive impairments and poor outcomes in a variety of childhood disorders, including children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). A number of studies have examined cognitive control and affective processes independently within a single pediatric population; however recent models suggests that the dynamic interplay of cognitive control and affective processes is critical to understanding self-regulation failures.  Approaching the problem in terms of a dynamic interplay also easily allows study of affect regulation across populations, a movement in current research spurred by the NIMH’s Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) framework on mechanisms operating as dimensions of function from typical to atypical childhood outcomes.


The current study aims to test the model by assessing whether the linear relationship between negative affect and self-regulation impairments is mediated by cognitive control.


282 children were enrolled in the present study; 167 had an ASD, 27 had an anxiety disorder, 24 children enrolled in the study with concerns about an ASD but did not meet criteria, and 64 typically developing controls. This group ranged in age from 6.0 to 15.3 years (M=9.88 years, SD=2.74) with general cognitive ability ranging from 30-155 (M=98.65, SD=22.70). The Externalizing and Internalizing subscales from the Behaviors Assessment Scale for Children-2nd Edition and Child Behavior Checklist were our measure of self-regulation, while cognitive control was measured with the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF).  The Screen for Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED) was our measure of negative affect.  Prior to the mediation model we first established linear relationships between self-regulation and cognitive control or negative affect with Pearson correlations. We then used the average causal mediation effect estimation procedure (with bootstrapping to estimate confidence intervals) to probe whether cognitive control mediated the relationship between negative affect and self-regulation.


The global executive composite form the BRIEF had medium to large correlations with externalizing behaviors (r=.66) and internalizing behaviors (r=.46), whereas the total score from the SCARED had similar effect sizes with externalizing behaviors (r=.40) and internalizing behaviors (r=.78). A subset of children had all 3 measures (n=257), and our mediation model demonstrated that BRIEF scores mediated the relationship between total self-regulation problems on BASC/CBCL and negative affect with a 95% confidence interval of .05 to .13, corresponding to a p<0.01.


Our results demonstrate that both cognitive control and negative affect exhibit significant relationships with self-regulation impairments in a transdiagnostic sample. Furthermore, our mediation results demonstrate that cognitive control explains the relationship between negative affect and self-regulation. Taken together, these results support the RDoC framework as a viable method for examining underlying mechanisms of real world behaviors transdiagnostically.