A Pilot Study of Responses to Interparental Conflict in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Abstract

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.

Fig. 1

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  2. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  3. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    Google Scholar 

  7. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. 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.

    Google Scholar 

  10. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Cummings, E. M. (1987). Coping with background anger in early childhood. Child Development, 58, 976–984.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Cummings, E. M. (1995). Usefulness of experiments for the study of the family. Journal of Family Psychology, 9, 175–185. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.9.2.175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 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/10.1037/0012-1649.27.3.462.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2010). Marital conflict and children: An emotional security perspective. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. 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/10.1037/0012-1649.21.3.495.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  19. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. 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.

  22. 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/10.1037/0893-3200.13.4.610.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, D. M. (2007). Peabody picture vocabulary test (4th ed.). Bloomington, MN: Pearson.

    Google Scholar 

  25. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  26. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. Grych, J. H. (1998). Children’s appraisals of interparental conflict: Situational and contextual influences. Journal of Family Psychology, 12, 437–453. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.12.3.437.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  30. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  31. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  32. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  34. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  35. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  37. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  39. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  40. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  41. 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.

    Google Scholar 

  42. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  43. 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

  44. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  45. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  46. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 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/10.1037/0012-1649.38.5.774.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  50. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  51. 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.

    Google Scholar 

  52. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 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.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  54. Rutter, M., Bailey, A., & Lord, C. (2003). Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ). Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

    Google Scholar 

  55. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  60. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  61. 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.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

NVE and CDK contributed to the study conception, design, material preparation, and data collection. Data analysis was primarily conducted by NVE. Both authors contributed equally to writing the first draft of the manuscript and revisions.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Naomi V. Ekas.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

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

Download citation

Keywords

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Interparental conflict
  • Emotional responses
  • Behavioral responses
  • Physiological reactivity