A recent study published in Development and Psychopathology sheds light on the emotional and physiological differences observed in siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These siblings have an increased likelihood of being diagnosed with ASD themselves, making their development a crucial area of investigation.
Previous research has already identified physiological differences in typical children during emotionally charged tasks. By unraveling these differences in the context of siblings of children with ASD, we can gain valuable insights into both typical and atypical child development.
The motivation behind this study was to investigate emotional regulation in infants and toddlers, and its association with social skills, behavioral problems, and academic ability. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to manage our emotional reactions to different situations.
Previous research has relied on parent reports to study emotional regulation in young children, which may have limitations in terms of standardization and social desirability bias. To overcome these limitations, the authors of the new study used direct observation of children during tasks that evoke emotional responses, along with physiological measures like heart rate, facial affect, and gaze.
The study involved infants who were recruited when they were between 6 and 12 months old. The researchers assessed them at regular intervals of 6, 12, 18, and 24 months of age. The analysis was carried out in two groups: those at low likelihood (LL) of developing ASD (infants with no family history of ASD) and those with an increased likelihood (IL) of developing ASD (infants who had an older sibling diagnosed with ASD).
The researchers designed a set of tasks to evoke different emotional responses in the infants. These tasks were adapted from the Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery (Lab-TAB) and included activities such as bubbles, toy play, toy removal, masks, face washing, and hair brushing. Each task was meant to elicit specific emotions, either positive or negative.
The researchers analyzed their behavioral responses, including positive and negative affect and gaze, as well as their physiological response, measured by heart rate. At 24 months of age, all participants underwent an assessment for ASD.
The study’s results revealed that at 24 months of age, IL infants who were later classified with ASD displayed notable differences compared to children not classified with ASD. Specifically, they showed higher levels of negative emotions, displayed differences in gaze, and had a greater increase in heart rate during emotionally charged tasks.
The IL infants who were later classified with ASD spent more time looking at the baseline task compared to the other two groups. This means they showed less interest in the emotionally salient tasks.
The IL infants who were later classified with ASD showed a greater increase in heart rate from baseline during the toy removal and negative tasks compared to the LL group. This suggests that they had more intense physiological arousal in response to these emotionally challenging tasks.
These differences could have implications for understanding the underlying mechanisms related to the emergence of ASD symptoms in these children.
While these findings provide crucial information for identifying differences in child development between those with autism and those without, it’s essential to acknowledge certain limitations. The study focused on a specific group of siblings, so the results may not directly apply to children with autism who don’t have siblings with the condition. Additionally, due to pandemic restrictions, some evaluations had to be adapted, and important data such as height and weight measurements were not available.
The study, “Behavioral and physiological differences during an emotion-evoking task in children at increased likelihood for autism spectrum disorder“, was authored by Lori-Ann R. Sacrey, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, Jessica A. Brian, Isabel M. Smith, Vickie Armstrong, Tracy Vaillancourt, and Louis A. Schmidt.