Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Autism: Parent Acceptance and Empowerment


Parents are often overwhelmed by the challenges presented by a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Research has shown that parents of children on the spectrum exhibit a characteristic stress profile which includes anxiety related to the child's uneven intellectual profiles, deficits in social relatedness, disruptive and maladaptive behaviors (internalizing and externalizing problems) and long-term care concerns. Among these stressors, the child’s maladaptive behavior profile is most reliably linked to parent stress. 

Studies also indicate that raising children with ASD is associated with higher levels of parenting stress and psychological distress than parenting typi­cally developing children, children with a physical disability, or children with developmental delays without ASD. Mothers, in particular, appear to face unique challenges related to the characteristics of ASD. Because autism impairs social relatedness and adaptive functioning, parent stress can decrease helpful psychological processes and directly influence the parent or caregiver’s ability to support the child with disabilities.
Increased attention is now being given to the psychological well-being of parents of individuals with ASD. A number of studies have exam­ined the factors that can influence the impact of children’s problem behavior on parent mental health. A study in the Journal Autism examined the relationships between child problem behavior, parent mental health problems, psychological acceptance (e.g., accepting and not being adversely influenced by negative emotions and thoughts that a parent may have about their child), and parent empowerment (e.g., actively attempting to change or eliminate potentially stressful events through the application of knowledge and skills).
The researchers found that the more positive parents’ psy­chological acceptance and empowerment, the less they reported severe mental health problems. Although greater parent empowerment was associated with fewer parent mental health problems, psychological acceptance had the greatest impact on parent mental health problems, after controlling for ASD symptomatology, negative life events, parent and child gender, and child age. As child problem behavior increased, parent psychological acceptance decreased, resulting in an increase in parent mental health problems. These results suggest that problems that are persistent, stressful and not easily managed via an active problem solving approach may negatively impact the individual’s process of psy­chological acceptance, which in turn can lead to reduced adjustment.
This study has several important implications. The relatively chronic nature of behavior problems in children with ASD may explain why acceptance is a more significant psychological construct for explaining parent mental health than is empowerment. If difficulties are man­ageable and support readily available, then an active, problem-focused coping style would be related to improved parent adjustment. However, for children with ASD who exhibit more persistent behavior problems, or for highly stressed and frustrated parents, a problem-focused process may not be enough to ensure positive parent adjustment. If problems are less controllable and/or support less accessible, it may be impossible for parents to focus exclusively on trying to change or avoid their current experience. The authors comment, “In these situations, parents need a different coping strategy, one that allows them to acknowledge their current experience without trying to change it or avoid it.”  Therefore, it may be critically important to understand and evaluate the situation of the family, and offer parents both types of coping skills (acceptance and empowerment) for use across different situations.
Importantly, this study supports the exploration of accept­ance and mindfulness-based interventions as effective approaches for parents of children with ASD and underscores the importance of considering the parent psychological experience when developing treatments for child problem behavior. The authors conclude, “Child-focused therapy should not focus exclu­sively on the child. At the same time that we provide parents with skills and supports to improve their children’s experience, we must also invest in helping parents to deal with their own emotions and coping strategies. Further research is needed to investigate the effectiveness of such interventions, and other parent-focused therapies, with con­trolled designs and large, diverse samples of parents.
Weiss, J. A., Cappadocia, M. C., MacMullin, J. A., Viecili, M., & Lunsky, Y. (2012). The impact of child problem behaviors of children with ASD on parent mental health: The mediating role of acceptance and empowerment. Autism, 16, 261-274. DOI: 10.1177/1362361311422708

5 comments:

~Tricia~ said...

Thank you for this article; it is much needed and highly appreciated.
Tricia Johnson

Alison said...

Great article. As a teacher of middle school students with autism I would like to find ways of empowering my student's parents.

Alison Sowers

Elizabeth Sellars said...

I am so appreciative of your posting this. As a mother of three autistic children I cannot even begin to express my emotions and the stress. What makes it even harder for me is the lack of compassion I get from family especially my husband. I am glad to know that I am not alone.

Moyra Duchenne said...

You highlight the stress that parents experience so very well. As I was reading this I remember one parent who suggested that we make a T-Shirt to wear saying, I have the hide of a rhino especially for going out with the children. Support groups are essential for one to live and laugh together. Thanks so much.

Moyra Duchenne said...

How good you are to point out the stress parents experience. In the organisation in which I worked we referred to the Warrior Moms and Dads. the article made me think of one of the Dads saying he wished we could make a T-Shirt which said "I have the hide of a rhino" designed specially for outings - just one area of potential stress. Thanks again for your articles - so informative and so helpful.

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