Research supports that parents of children with ASD experience higher rates of marital conflict compared to parents of neurotypically developing (NT) children; however, no known research examining reactions to interparental conflict in children with ASD exists. This study compared emotional, behavioral, and physiological responses to interparental conflict in ASD (n = 21) and NT children (n = 29). Children were presented with videotaped interactions (constructive vs. destructive conflict) of actors and their reactions were measured. Children with ASD reported higher levels of negative emotions following constructive conflict compared to NT children. Parents of children with ASD rated their child’s emotional and behavioral responses to interparental conflict more negatively than parents of NT children. Comparable levels of physiological reactivity were found across both groups.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Beauchaine, T. P. (2015). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia: A transdiagnostic biomarker of emotion dysregulation and psychopathology. Current Opinion in Psychology, 3, 43–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.01.017.
Benevides, T. W., & Lane, S. J. (2015). A review of cardiac autonomic measures: Considerations for examination of physiological responses in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 560–575. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-013-1971-z.
Benjamini, Y., & Hochberg, Y. (1995). Controlling the false discovery rate: A practical and powerful approach to multiple testing. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series B (Methodological), 57, 289–300. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2517-6161.1995.tb02031.x.
Bergman, K. N., Cummings, E. M., Warmuth, K. A. (2016). The benefits of marital conflict: Constructiveness and resolution as predictors of positive child outcomes. In D. Narvaez, J. M. Braungart-Reiker, L. E. Miller-Graff, L. T., Gettler, & P. D. Hastings (Eds.), Contexts for young child flourishing: Evolution, family, and society (pp. 223-245). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Berntson, G. G., Quigley, K. S., & Lozano, D. (2007). Cardiovascular psychophysiology. In J. Cacioppo, L. G. Tassinary, & G. G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of psychophysiology (pp. 182–210). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Blair, R. J. R. (1999). Psychophysiological responsiveness to the distress of others in children with autism. Personality and Individual Differences, 26, 477–485. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(98)00154-8.
Brock, R. L., & Kochanska, G. (2016). Interparental conflict, children’s security with parents, and long-term risk of internalizing problems: A longitudinal study from ages 2 to 10. Development and Psychopathology, 28, 45–54. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579415000279.
Carothers, D. E., & Taylor, R. L. (2004). Social cognitive processing in elementary school children with Asperger syndrome. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 39, 177–187.
Corbett, B. A., Muscatello, R. A., & Baldinger, C. (2019). Comparing stress and arousal systems in response to different social contexts in children with ASD. Biological Psychology, 140, 119–130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2018.12.010.
Cummings, E. M. (1987). Coping with background anger in early childhood. Child Development, 58, 976–984.
Cummings, E. M. (1995). Usefulness of experiments for the study of the family. Journal of Family Psychology, 9, 175–185. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-318.104.22.168.
Cummings, E. M., Ballard, M., El-Sheikh, M., & Lake, M. (1991). Resolution and children’s responses to interadult anger. Developmental Psychology, 27, 462–470. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.1242.
Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2010). Marital conflict and children: An emotional security perspective. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Cummings, E. M., Geoke-Morey, M. C., & Papp, L. M. (2003). Children’s responses to everyday marital conflict tactics in the home. Child Development, 74, 1918–1929. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00646.x.
Cummings, E. M., Iannotti, R. J., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (1985). Influence of conflict between adults on the emotions and aggression of young children. Developmental Psychology, 21, 495–507. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1995.
Cummings, E. M., Schermerhorn, A. C., Davies, P. T., Goeke-Morey, M. C., & Cummings, J. S. (2006). Interparental discord and child adjustment: Prospective investigations of emotional security as an explanatory mechanism. Child Development, 77, 132–152. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00861.x.
Davies, P. T., Coe, J. L., Martin, M. J., Sturge-Apple, M. L., & Cummings, E. M. (2015). The developmental costs and benefits of children’s involvement in interparental conflict. Developmental Psychology, 51, 1026–1047. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000024.
Davies, P. T., & Cummings, E. M. (1994). Marital conflict and child adjustment: An emotional security hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 387–411. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.3.387.
Davies, P. T., Forman, E. M., Rasi, J. A., & Stevens, K. I. (2002). Assessing children’s emotional security in the interparental relationship: The security in the interparental subsystem scales. Child Development, 73, 544–562. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00423.
Davies, P. T., Martin, M. J., & Sturge-Apple, M. L. (2016). Emotional security theory and developmental psychopathology. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology, Vol. 1. Theory and method(3rd ed., pp. 199-264). New York, NY: Wiley.
Davies, P. T., Myers, R. L., Cummings, E. M., & Heindel, S. (1999). Adult conflict history and children’s subsequent responses to conflict: An experimental test. Journal of Family Psychology, 13, 610–628. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3188.8.131.520.
Davis, N. O., & Carter, A. S. (2008). Parenting stress in mothers and fathers of toddlers with autism spectrum disorders: Associations with child characteristics. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1278–1291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-007-0512-z.
Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, D. M. (2007). Peabody picture vocabulary test (4th ed.). Bloomington, MN: Pearson.
Edmiston, E. K., Muscatello, R. A., & Corbett, B. A. (2017). Altered pre-ejection period response to social evaluative threat in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 36, 57–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2017.01.008.
El-Sheikh, M., Kouros, C. D., Erath, S., Cummings, E. M., Keller, P. S., & Elmore-Staton, L. (2009). Marital conflict and children’s externalizing behavior: Interactions between parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system activity. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 74, 1–101.
Goeke-Morey, M. C., Cummings, E. M., Harold, G. T., & Shelton, K. H. (2003). Categories and continua of destructive and constructive marital conflict tactics from the perspective of U.S. and Welch children. Journal of Family Psychology, 17, 327–338. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.3.327.
Grych, J. H. (1998). Children’s appraisals of interparental conflict: Situational and contextual influences. Journal of Family Psychology, 12, 437–453. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3184.108.40.2067.
Hartley, S. L., Barker, E. T., Seltzer, M. M., Floyd, F., Greenberg, J., & Orsmond, G. (2010). The relative risk and timing of divorce in families of children with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 449–457. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019847.
Hartley, S. L., Papp, L. M., Mihaila, I., Bussanich, P. M., Goetz, G., & Hickey, E. J. (2017). Couple conflict in parents of children with versus without autism: Self-reported and observed findings. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26, 2152–2165. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-017-0737-1.
Hartley, S. L., Smith DeWalt, L., & Shultz, H. M. (2017). Daily couple experiences and parent affect in families of children with versus without autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 1645–1658. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3088-2.
Hochhauser, M., Weiss, P. L., & Gail, W. E. (2015). Negotiation strategies of adolescents with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder during social conflicts. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder, 10, 7–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2014.10.022.
Hubert, B. E., Wicker, B., Monfardini, E., & Deruelle, C. (2009). Electrodermal reactivity to emotion processing in adults with autistic spectrum disorders. Autism, 13, 9–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361308091649.
Hudson, C. C., Hall, L., & Harkness, K. L. (2019). Prevalence of depressive disorders in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 47, 165–175. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-018-0402-1.
Kaat, A. J., & Lecavalier, L. (2013). Disruptive behavior disorders in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: A review of the prevalence, presentation, and treatment. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 1579–1594. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2013.08.012.
Kahle, S., Miller, J. G., Lopez, M., & Hastings, P. D. (2016). Sympathetic recovery from anger is associated with emotion regulation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 142, 359–371. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.10.004.
Koning, C., & Magill-Evans, J. (2001). Social and language skills in adolescent boys with Asperger syndrome. Autism, 5, 23–36. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361301005001003.
Koss, K. J., George, M. R. W., Bergman, K. N., Cummings, E. M., Davies, P. T., & Cicchetti, D. (2011). Understanding children’s emotional processes and behavioral strategies in the context of marital conflict. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109, 336–352. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2011.02.007.
Lartseva, A., Dijkstra, T., & Buitelaar, J. K. (2015). Emotional language processing in autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 991. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00991.
Levine, T. P., Sheinkopf, S. J., Pescosolido, M., Rodino, A., Elia, G., & Lester, B. (2012). Physiologic arousal to social stress in children with autism spectrum disorders: a pilot study. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 177–183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2011.04.003.
Lord, C. (1984). The development of peer relations in children with autism. In F. J. Morrison, C. Lord, & D. P. Keating (Eds.), Advances in applied developmental psychology (pp. 75–97). New York: Academic Press Inc.
Lydon, S., Healy, O., Reed, P., Mulhern, T., Hughes, B. M., & Goodwin, M. S. (2016). A systematic review of physiological reactivity to stimuli in autism. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 19, 335–355. https://doi.org/10.3109/17518423.2014.971975.
Maenner, M.J., Shaw, K.A., Baio, J. et al. (2020). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years - Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2016. MMWR Surveillance Summaries, 69(No. SS-4), 1-12. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6904a1
Mathersul, D., McDonald, S., & Rushby, J. A. (2013). Autonomic arousal explains social cognitive abilities in high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 89(3), 475–482. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2013.04.014.
Millward, C., Powell, S., Messer, D., & Jordan, R. (2000). Recall for self and other in autism: Children’s memory for events experienced by themselves and their peers. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 15–28. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005455926727.
Neuhaus, E., Bernier, R. A., & Beauchaine, T. P. (2016). Children with autism show altered autonomic adaptation to novel and familiar social partners. Autism Research, 9, 579–591. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1543.
Nuske, H. J., Vivanti, G., & Dissanayake, C. (2013). Are emotion impairments unique to, universal, or specific in autism spectrum disorder? A comprehensive review. Cognition & Emotion, 27, 1042–1061. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2012.762900.
Obradović, J., Bush, N. R., & Boyce, W. T. (2011). The interactive effect of marital conflict and stress reactivity on externalizing and internalizing symptoms: The role of laboratory stressors. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 11–114. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579410000672.
Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2002). Marital conflict in the home when children are present versus not. Developmental Psychology, 38, 774–783. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.114.
Patriquin, M. A., Scarpa, A., Friedman, B. H., & Porges, S. W. (2011). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia: A marker for positive social functioning and receptive language skills in children with autism spectrum disorders. Developmental Psychobiology, 55, 101–112. https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.21002.
Porges, S. (1991). Vagal tone: An autonomic mediator of affect. In J. A. Garber & K. A. Dodge (Eds.), The development of affect regulation and dysregulation (pp. 111–128). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rice, K., Moriuchi, J. M., Jones, W., & Klin, A. (2012). Parsing heterogeneity in autism spectrum disorders: visual scanning of dynamic social scenes in school-aged children. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 51, 238–248. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2011.12.017.
Rhoades, K. A. (2008). Children’s responses to interparental conflict: A meta-analysis of their associations with child adjustment. Child Development, 79, 1942–1956. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01235.x.
Rutter, M., Bailey, A., & Lord, C. (2003). Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ). Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.
Saini, M., Stoddart, K. P., Gibson, M., Morris, R., Barrett, D., Muskat, B., & Zwaigenbaum, L. (2015). Couple relationships among parents of children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Findings from a scoping review of the literature. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 17, 142–157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2015.06.014.
Shelton, K. H., Harold, G. T., Goeke-Morey, M. C., & Cummings, E. M. (2006). Children’s coping with marital conflict: The role of conflict expression and gender. Social Development, 15, 232–247. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1467-9507-2006-00338.x.
Sim, A., Cordier, R., Vaz, S., & Falkmer, T. (2016). Relationship satisfaction in couples raising a child with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review of the literature. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 31, 30–52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2016.17.004.
Szatmari, P., Bartolucci, G., & Bremner, R. (1989). Asperger’s syndrome and autism: Comparison of early history and outcome. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 31, 709–720. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8749.1989.tb04066.x.
Tardif, C., Lainé, F., Rodriguez, M., & Gepner, B. (2007). Slowing down presentation of facial movements and vocal sounds enhances facial expression recognition and induces facial–vocal imitation in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1469–1484. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-006-0223-x.
van Eldik, W. M., de Haan, A. D., Parry, L. Q., Davies, P. T., Luijk, M. P. C. M., Arends, L. R., & Prinzie, P. (2020). The interparental relationship: Meta-analytic associations with children’s adjustment and responses to interparental conflict. Psychological Bulletin, 146, 553–594. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000233.
Williams, D. L., Goldstein, G., & Minshew, N. J. (2005). Impaired memory for faces and social scenes in autism: Clinical implications of memory dysfunction. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 20, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acn.2002.08.001.
This study was funded by a research grant from the Jerry M. Lewis, M.D. Mental Health Research Foundation (GA-2015-010), awarded to Ekas and Kouros. Kouros is a former trainee (2008–2011) on NIMH training grant T32-MH18921.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Ekas, N.V., Kouros, C.D. A Pilot Study of Responses to Interparental Conflict in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04802-y
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Interparental conflict
- Emotional responses
- Behavioral responses
- Physiological reactivity