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Exposure to family stressful life events in autistic children: Longitudinal associations with mental health and the moderating role of cognitive flexibility

Carter Leno, Virginia, Wright, Nicola ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3285-2051, Pickles, Andrew, Bedford, Rachael, Zaidman-Zait, Anat, Kerns, Connor, Mirenda, Pat, Zwaigenbaum, Lonnie, Duku, Eric, Bennett, Teresa, Georgiades, Stelios, Smith, Isabel, Vaillancourt, Tracy, Szatmari, Peter and Elsabbagh, Mayada (2022) Exposure to family stressful life events in autistic children: Longitudinal associations with mental health and the moderating role of cognitive flexibility. Autism. ISSN 1362-3613

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Abstract

Mental health problems are prevalent in autistic youth, but the underpinning mechanisms are not well explored. In neurotypical youth, stressful life events are an established risk factor for mental health problems. This study tested longitudinal bidirectional associations between family-level stressful life events and mental health problems and whether these were moderated by cognitive flexibility, in a cohort of autistic children (N = 247). Family-stressful life events, assessed using the parent-reported Family Inventory of Life Events and Changes, and mental health problems, assessed using the teacher-reported Child Behavior Checklist Internalizing and Externalizing Symptoms subscales, were measured at multiple points between 7 and 11 years. Analyses showed no significant pathways from internalizing or externalizing symptoms to family-stressful life events or from family-stressful life events to internalizing or externalizing symptoms. There was some evidence of moderation by cognitive flexibility; the family-stressful life events to internalizing symptoms pathway was non-significant in the group with typical shifting ability but significant in the group with clinically significant shifting problems. Information about family-level stressful life event exposure and cognitive flexibility may be helpful in identifying autistic youth who may be at higher risk of developing mental health problems. Established risk factors for mental health problems in neurotypical populations are relevant for understanding mental health in autistic youth.

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