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Emotion Regulation in Autistic Youth

The Role of Emotion Regulation in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Mazefsky CA, Herrington J, Siegel M, Scarpa A, Maddox BB, Scahill L, White SW

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by impairments in social communication, restricted behavior and repetitive actions, and is estimated to affect 1 in 88 in school age children. The impairments associated with ASD affect one’s emotion regulation, which is the automatic modification of a person’s emotional state to promote adaptive or goal-directed behavior.

A review by Dr. Carla Mazefsky and colleagues provides a conceptual and methodological framework for understanding compromised emotion regulation in ASD. In this paper, which was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, emotion regulation and related constructs are defined, and methods to study emotion regulation are reviewed with special consideration of how certain approaches can be applied to ASD. Against the backdrop of cognitive characteristics in ASD and existing emotion regulation theories, Dr. Mazefsky and colleagues examined available research to identify likely contributors to emotional dysregulation in ASD.

Little is currently known about emotion regulation in youth with ASD. Some mechanisms that contribute to poor emotion regulation in ASD may be shared with other clinical populations, for example: physiological arousal, degree of negative and positive affect, and alterations in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. However, other mechanisms may be unique to ASD, such as differences in information processing/perception, cognitive factors (e.g., rigidity), less goal-directed behavior and more disorganized emotion in ASD.

The framework suggested by Dr. Mazefsky and colleagues proposes that neural mechanisms shared with other psychiatric disorders, in combination with ASD-related behavioral and cognitive characteristics, interact to produce the heterogeneous presentations of emotion dysregulation in ASD. This paper posits that emotion regulation is a dimensional construct that cuts across disorders, and poor emotion regulation may be inherent in ASD. This may provide a more parsimonious conceptualization for the many associated socio-emotional and behavioral problems in this population. Further study of emotion regulation in youth with ASD may identify meaningful subgroups of patients and lead to more effective individualized treatments.

Contributors:
Carla A. Mazefsky, PhD (Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh)
John Herrington, PhD (Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia)
Matthew Siegel, MD (Spring Harbor Hospital and Tufts Medical Center)
Angela Scarpa, PhD; Brenna B. Maddox, MS; Susan W. White, PhD (Department of Psychology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University)
Lawrence Scahill, MSN, PhD (Department of Psychiatry, Emory University)

The paper was published in the May 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Click here for a link to the abstract.