Coral Shuster, University of Rhode Island


This dissertation aimed to better understand the role that emotion regulation (ER) difficulties have in the lives of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). To achieve this goal, this dissertation took a three-pronged approach, examining the themes of ER difficulties in association with ASD-related symptoms through three independent studies: (a) a secondary data analysis, (b) a scoping literature review, and (c) a cross-sectional observational study.

To examine the association between ASD-related social responsiveness, family conflict, child ER, and parent perceived stress, a secondary data analysis (chapter one) was conducted. Data were included for a nationwide sample of 2,229 children enrolled in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study (Barch et al., 2021). Findings suggest that higher social responsiveness scores predict more ER difficulties as reported by a parent. Parent perceived stress and child ER were positively associated. The findings regarding social responsiveness and ER in a sample without formal ASD diagnosis prompted a review of the ER literature specifically pertaining to ASD symptoms in children with a diagnosis.

A scoping literature review (chapter two) resulted in examination of 30 articles about ER difficulties in school aged children with an ASD diagnosis. General findings suggest that this population often struggles with ER difficulties and there are many mechanisms which contribute to troubles regulating emotions. Poor outcomes have been associated with ER difficulties and a variety of clinical interventions have been created to improve ER for this population. There is some research regarding parent involvement in co-regulation, specifically regarding parents engaging in scaffolding and supportive behaviors when children are experiencing strong emotional states, but the parent’s own ER efforts are not often studied.

Given the pervasive nature of ER difficulties for children with ASD and the importance of parents in ER development and engagement, an examination of child and parent ER was conducted via cross-sectional data collection (chapter three). Data were collected from 173 parents, whose children have a parent-reported ASD diagnosis, about their own and their child’s ER difficulties, their child’s ASD symptom severity, and information regarding other mechanisms that could be associated with ER. Structural equation models suggest that more severe ASD-related symptoms predict more difficulties for both parent and child ER. Signs of mutual influence between parent and child latent variables of ER difficulties were found, but the strength and direction of these relationships did not align with hypotheses.

Overall, studying dyadic ER in families is important to build context for the ER difficulties children with ASD typically experience. Gaining a better understanding of dyadic ER may help us to continue building interventions that provide ER support for the entire family. The findings from this combination of studies may provide some groundwork for low-cost interventions around ER skill building for families whose children have ASD. This collection of studies also provides support for continued research examining the role of dyadic ER longitudinally, which would allow for a more complex exploration of the role dyadic ER may have on general family functioning and cohesion.