Background Behavioural and emotional problems occur at a high rate in children and adolescents with intellectual disability, often from a young age. Some studies have indicated that children and adolescents with autism present with even higher rates. Less is known about the presentation, development and family impact of these difficulties in young children with autism. This study aimed to explore these issues in toddlers with pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs), those with delay without a PDD, and their families.
Methods Participants were 123 children aged 20–51 months, referred to a developmental assessment clinic. Parents completed a checklist on child behavioural and emotional problems, and individual questionnaires on family functioning, their own mental health, and stress in relation to parenting their child. The child’s language and cognitive skills, adaptive functioning and behaviour were assessed by standardized measures. Measures were repeated 1 year postdiagnosis. Behavioural and emotional problems in young children with a PDD were compared with those in children with developmental delay without a PDD, and their impact on parental outcomes explored over time.
Results Initial and follow-up measures of child behaviour and emotional problems, parent mental health problems, parent stress and family functioning were significantly correlated, providing some evidence of stability over time. Child emotional and behavioural problems contributed significantly more to mother stress, parent mental health problems, and perceived family dysfunction than child diagnosis (PDD/non-PDD), delay or gender. Compared with mothers, all fathers reported significantly less stress in relation to parenting their child.
Conclusion Results highlighted the importance of addressing emotional and behavioural problems in very young children with autism and/or developmental delay. The need for early support and intervention for mothers, fathers and families in this context was also evidenced. As research has shown that behavioural and emotional problems persist into adolescence and young adulthood, understanding of these issues in very young children and their parents has important implications for intervention and long-term outcomes.