In contrast to the large body of research on mothers, there has been little research on fathers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Greater involvement of fathers in caring for their children with autism may be especially important, as previous research has shown that mothers of autistic children often experience higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety than other mothers. A study conducted at the University of Illinois found that fathers who read to their infants with autism and take active roles in caregiving activities not only promote healthy development in their children, they improve mothers’ mental health as well.
The study examined the longitudinal association between fathers’ early involvement in routine caregiving, literacy, play, and responsive caregiving activities at 9 months and maternal depressive symptoms at 4 years. Data for 3,550 children and their biological parents were drawn from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, including 50 children with autism spectrum disorders and 650 children with other disabilities. Information was collected on mothers' well-being and fathers' involvement in several parenting activities: literacy; play; routine caregiving, such as bathing; and responsive caregiving. Analyses examined whether the association between father involvement and maternal depressive symptoms differed for families of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and for families of children with other disabilities or delays from families of children who were typically developing.
Results indicated that father literacy and responsive caregiving involvement were associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms for mothers of children with ASD. Mothers of children with autism reported fewer depressive symptoms when their children were 4 years old if the child's father engaged in literacy and responsive caregiving activities such as comforting children when they were upset or taking the child to the doctor when the child was 9 months old.
Fathers who read to their children, or respond when the child cries, can give the mothers respite, enabling mothers to perform other tasks or engage in self-care activities that improve their mood and reduce stress, commented lead author Daniel J. Laxman. "One of the key criteria of autism is difficulty with communication, which may explain why these children's mothers are especially susceptible to stress and depression," Laxman said. "It can be very frustrating for parents -- and upsetting for children -- when children struggle with communication. If fathers are reading to their kids, telling stories or singing songs, it is going to be very beneficial for the child's development of communication skills and learning words. By improving children's communication skills, fathers' literacy activities may help alleviate some of the mothers' concerns and stress related to these problems."
"Prior research and work by early interventionists has focused solely on mothers' parenting of their children with autism, reflecting societal expectations that fathers are less involved, said co-author Brent A. McBride. "In family systems that include children with autism, the stressors are huge, and mothers need all the support they can grasp. Whether it comes from the child's father, their social network or online resources, mothers need additional support to be able to continue functioning in an effective way. We, as a society, have to ask men to become involved, and it's very important that men fully understand the reasons why their support and active engagement in parenting is so critical for the family's functioning and for the child." Training and professional development opportunities must be made available to early interventionists and other professionals who work with families, so they can find ways to get fathers more involved in parenting activities.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Dads' parenting of children with autism improves moms' mental health: Fathers' engagement in literacy, caregiving activities reduces mothers' depression, stress." ScienceDaily, 14 July 2015.
Daniel J. Laxman, Brent A. McBride, Laurie M. Jeans, W. Justin Dyer, Rosa M. Santos, Justin L. Kern, Niwako Sugimura, Sarah L. Curtiss, Jenna M. Weglarz-Ward. Father Involvement and Maternal Depressive Symptoms in Families of Children with Disabilities or Delays. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 2014; 19 (5): 1078 DOI: 10.1007/s10995-014-1608-7
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, rechartered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He provides consultation services and best practice guidance to school systems, agencies, advocacy groups, and professionals on a wide variety of topics related to children and youth with autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).
© 2018 Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD