Compared to families of typically developing children and families of children with other developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders create unique stressors for families (Randall and Parker, 1999). Some studies suggest that family functioning is negatively impacted by having a child with autism and that families show reduced family adaptation compared to families of children with other disabilities or typically developing children (Higgins, Bailey and Pearce, 2005). Other studies suggest that adaptation in families with autism is often within a healthy, normative range, and that families report positive effects as a result of having such a child (e.g. Hastings & Taunt, 2002). Given the substantial impact on family life as well as the knowledge that its challenges are different from other child disabilities, additional research focusing on family adaptation is important to help practitioners to better assist the families with whom they work by delivering interventions tailored to this disorder.
The objective of this study was to investigate the relationship between family adaptation, severity of autism and behavior problems, social support, religious coping, and reframing in a racially diverse sample of families with a school-age child with autism. It was predicted that (a) the Double ABCX model would predict parental distress and family functioning and (b) families in this study would report higher parental distress and lower family functioning compared to normative data.
The sample included 195 school-age children with autism spectrum disorders (161 boys and 34 girls; 51% white). Average age of the children was 8.8 years (SD = 2.1), with a range from 6 to 12 years of age. Primary caregivers of children with ASD were recruited through autism parent support groups, medical clinics, conferences, and schools. Families were mailed questionnaire packets, consisting of standardized measures assessing the constructs of the ABCX model. 195 participants completed and returned the questionnaire packet, a return rate of 79%.
Hierarchical regression results revealed that the Double ABCX model of family adaptation accounted for a substantial amount of the variance in family functioning (28%) and parental distress (46%). Findings suggest that child behavior problems and reframing are most strongly associated with family outcomes. In addition, results suggested that families in this study experienced higher levels of stress, but that their overall family functioning was within a healthy range.
This study is an important step in continuing to understand how to best help families who are coping with autism. The increased level of stress experienced by these families underscores the need for researchers and clinicians to provide appropriate family-based interventions. On the positive side, families with autism appear to be adapting in healthy ways even in the face of their increased stress. The findings suggest implications for clinical interventions for families with autism including the use of strength-based approaches, highlighting parents’ ability to cope with their challenging circumstances.