Children with Autism May Have Trouble Differentiating Between Healthy and Unhealthy Parental Arguments

Parents will argue from time to time, but there is a healthy way of modeling arguments and a less healthy way. A new study has found that children with autism have a harder time differentiating between the two, which could lead to issues understanding constructive conflict.

Researchers Naomi Ekas from Texas Christian University and Chrystyna Kouros from Southern Methodist University are behind the study, which analyzed how kids with autism processed parental arguments compared with kids without autism. It was funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health and published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.


Ekas explains, “Children on the autism spectrum reacted more negatively to interparental conflict that we generally think of as being less harmful to children’s development, compared to non-autistic kids. It is possible that these children are misinterpreting the conflict as being more negative than it is.”

To gather data, researchers had 21 children with autism and 29 without autism watch videos of actors portraying parents. Participants ranged in age from 8 to 13. In one video, the actors had what would be deemed a respectful and constructive disagreement in which they spoke calmly and problem solved. In the other, the parents argued disrespectfully and insulted or threatened each other.

The children were then asked questions about how they felt and what they would do if they were in the room. Researchers say kids with autism responded more negatively to the constructive argument than kids without autism. There was no significant difference in their reactions to the disrespectful argument, however, with both responding negatively.


Kouros says, “Children can learn how to best handle conflict from watching their parents. Seeing parents respectfully problem-solve during a disagreement provides children with examples of how to resolve conflict in a healthy way. But children on the autism spectrum may be missing the chance to benefit from those interactions.”

Ekas and Kouros recommend that parents ensure their children with autism understand when a disagreement has ended and that common ground has been reached. It may also be helpful to teach their kids to understand the differences between unhealthy arguments with yelling and insults and respectful ones with calm discussion and understanding.

Ekas says, “This may help them navigate conflict with peers, as well.”


Other studies have found that parents with children on the spectrum are more apt to have conflict, so seeing all arguments in a negative light could be more problematic for the children. This is especially true because it’s been found that parents with these conflicts are still as likely as others to feel disagreements ended positively.

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