Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Arts




Duerden, Emma G


Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are statistically more likely to experience early adversity; however, little is known about which types of adversity are most prevalent, the role of parenting as a protective factor, and how this early life stress impacts cognitive outcomes. We assessed adversity and parenting styles in 238 children (ASD=82) aged 6–16 years using parent report. Intellectual abilities were assessed using the WISC-V. Children with ASD had increased incidence of familial stressors compared to Typically Developing (TD) children. Positive parenting was associated with significant decreases in familial adversity for all children. Environmental stressors were associated with cognitive impairments, but only in young children (6–11 years) with ASD. Findings suggest children with ASD may be at higher risk for familial adversity and potential cognitive deficits than their TD peers. All children benefit from positive parenting which may mitigate the negative effects of familial stress.

Summary for Lay Audience

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 events 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, evidence suggests that having a nurturing relationship with a parent can offset 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 was associated with experiencing fewer incidences of familial stress less often for children with ASD and TD children. We also found that stressors related to environmental factors like financial instability were associated with lower cognitive abilities in children with ASD under 6-11 years old. 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.