Background: Maximizing measurement accuracy is an important aim in child development assessment and research. Parents are essential informants in the diagnostic process, and past research suggests that certain parental characteristics may influence how they report information about their children. This has not been studied in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to date. We aimed, therefore, to investigate the possible effect that maternal depression might have on a mother’s reports of her child’s ASD behaviors. Using structural equation modeling, we disaggregated shared from unique variation in the association between latent variable measures of maternal depression and ASD behaviors.
Methods: Data were obtained from a study of preschoolers aged 2–4 newly diagnosed with ASD (n = 214). Information from a parent questionnaire, a semi-structured parent interview, and a semi-structured observational assessment was used to develop a latent variable measure of child ASD behaviors. Mothers reported on their own depression symptoms. We first modeled the covariance between maternal depression and child ASD behavior. Then, to quantify unique variation, we added covariance terms between maternal depression and the residual variation associated with the individual measures of child ASD behaviors.
Results: The model demonstrated excellent fit to the underlying data. Maternal self-report of depression symptoms exhibited a significant association with the unique variance of the questionnaire report but not with the latent variable measure of child ASD behavior. A gradient pattern of association was demonstrated between maternal depression and the unique variance of the ASD measures: most strongly for the maternal questionnaire report, more weakly for the maternal semi-structured interview, and to a trivial extent for the observational interview.
Conclusions: Parental depression may influence reporting of ASD behaviors in preschoolers. Shared method effects may also contribute to bias. This finding highlights the importance of obtaining multimethod reports of child ASD symptoms.