Early adversity and positive parenting: Association with cognitive outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorder
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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social communication and repetitive behaviors. Children with ASD are statistically more likely to experience early adversity; however, little is known about the types of early adversity that place these children at risk, the role of parenting as a protective factor, and how this early life stress impacts cognitive outcomes. We assessed early adversity in 302 children (ASD = 98) aged 6–16 years old, using parent-based report. To identify protective factors, we assessed parenting styles using parent surveys. Executive functions were assessed in the children using the WISC-V. Children with ASD had an increased incidence of familial stressors compared to the typically developing (TD) group. Positive parenting was associated with a significant decrease in the incidence of familial adverse events for both children with ASD and TD children. Examining the relationship between adversity and cognitive outcomes, in young children (6–11 years) with ASD, environmental stressors were associated with cognitive impairments. Findings suggest children with ASD may be at higher risk for familial adversity than their TD peers. However, all children benefit from positive parenting styles, which may mitigate the adverse effects of family-based early life stress. Lay Summary: Some key features of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) include difficulties with communication and social impairments. This means that children with ASD may be more likely to experience early adversity (stressful social interactions which take place during childhood) than children without ASD. Research in typically developing (TD) children has shown that experiencing more stressful events in childhood can cause changes in the brain, which can potentially impact the child's memory, reasoning, and decision-making skills later in life. However, there is evidence to suggest that having a nurturing relationship with a parent can offset some of the negative impacts of childhood adversity. In our study, we found that children with ASD are more likely to experience family-related stress compared to TD children. Having a positive relationship with a parent, however, was linked to experiencing this type of stress less often for all children, regardless of whether they were diagnosed with ASD. We also found that stressors related to environmental factors like financial instability were associated with lower cognitive abilities in children with ASD under 12 years of age. Understanding how these factors interact and differ in children with ASD can help to build stronger families and help children with ASD to thrive throughout their development.