Autism Spectrum Disorder Traits and Parental Stress: The moderating role of parental self-efficacy

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Virginia Tech

Previous research has established that caregivers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience greater levels of parenting stress as a result of unique parenting demands and child problem behavior (Davis & Carter, 2008; Estes et al., 2013). Positive self-concepts, specifically parental self-efficacy (PSE), have been implicated as a buffer to stress in a number of contexts (Cieslak, Benight, & Lehman, 2008). While many studies examine parenting stress in relation to ASD, they often use parent self-report rather than objective measures in a laboratory setting. The present study aimed to further explore the role of PSE in the relationship of parental stress and ASD traits through a biological measure of stress, as well as a parent self-report within a controlled laboratory environment.

Forty-two mother and child dyads participated in a validated parent-child interaction task designed to elicit a stressful experience. Mother’s heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) were monitored as the physiological measure of stress reactivity. Mothers also self-reported on ASD traits, perceived stress-reactivity, and PSE. Results demonstrated a significant positive main effect for ASD traits on HRV reactivity, and an interaction such that the relationship between ASD traits and HRV reactivity (i.e., more emotional flexibility) was stronger in those with lower PSE. Given the low sample size and subsequent low power, results should be viewed with caution. Considerations of the context of HRV as well as implications for treatment targets and studying parental stress are explored.

parenting, autism spectrum disorder, stress reactivity, heart rate, heart rate variability