Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia, Parenting, and Externalizing Behavior Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
J. K. Baker1, R. M. Fenning2, S. A. Erath3, B. R. Baucom4, D. S. Messinger5, J. M. Moffitt6, A. Kaeppler3 and A. N. Bailey7, (1)Center for Autism; Dept. of Child & Adolescent Studies, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA, (2)Center for Autism, Child and Adolescent Studies, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA, (3)Human Development and Family Studies, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, (4)Psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, (5)University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, (6)Center for Autism, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA, (7)Psychology, Auburn University, Auburn, AL
Background: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit significant difficulties with emotion regulation. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is a biomarker for processes related to emotion regulation, with higher baseline levels generally linked to beneficial outcomes. Although reduction in RSA in response to challenge (RSA reactivity) can index adaptive engagement in community samples, excessive reactivity may suggest loss of regulatory control among children with clinical concerns. Psychophysiological risk for dysregulation may be protected against or exacerbated by parenting environments more or less supportive of the development of children’s regulatory competence.

Objectives: The current study examined RSA in relation to externalizing problems in children with ASD, and considered positive and negative parenting as moderators.

Methods: From an original sample of 77 children, usable RSA data were obtained from an ethnically- and developmentally-diverse subgroup of 61 children with ASD (74% male; 47% Hispanic, IQ range = 47-121) aged 6 to 10 years (M = 7.95, SD = 1.48). RSA was measured with MindWare acquisition equipment and analysis software during a laboratory baseline and challenge task. Positive parenting included warmth as coded from a recorded speech sample, and observers’ ratings of parental scaffolding. Negative parenting was comprised of critical comments from the speech sample and parent report on a measure of harsh discipline. Children’s externalizing scores were indexed by parent report on the Child Behavior Checklist, and symptom ratings of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) on a structured diagnostic interview.

Results: Parents were generally rated moderate (63%) or high (30%) on warmth and average scaffolding was in the moderately-high range. Critical comments and harsh discipline were relatively low. The positive and negative parenting composites were uncorrelated, r = -.05, ns. Almost one-third of the children (30%) fell within the clinical range on externalizing problems and 34% met criteria for ODD. No main effects for RSA baseline or reactivity were observed after controlling for child age, IQ, and ASD symptom level; however, RSA reactivity interacted with both positive, B = -.26, t = -2.07, p = .044, and negative parenting, B = .30, t = 2.18, p = .034. Simple-slope analyses revealed that moderate-to-high levels of positive parenting buffered the association between higher RSA reactivity and children’s externalizing problems (low positive parenting, t = 2.34, p = .022, others were non-significant), while high negative parenting appeared to strengthen this risk, t = 2.35, p = .022. Alternative follow-up analyses with RSA reactivity as the moderator suggested a dual-risk model wherein less optimal parenting was particularly problematic for children with high RSA reactivity (low positive parenting, t = -2.32, p =.025; high negative parenting, t = 2.26, p =.028).

Conclusions: Findings suggested a dual-risk model wherein children with both high RSA reactivity in response to challenge and less-optimal parent support (low positive or high negative parenting) were uniquely at risk for higher externalizing problems. Differential susceptibility was not supported in that high reactivity did not similarly sensitize the children to more positive environments. Implications for tailoring parenting interventions for different children with ASD will be discussed.