Parenting is considered to be one of the most meaningful and complex human experiences, shaping the parent's sense of self. Parenting a child with an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) has a unique effect on various aspects of the parent's experience, including the relationships with the diagnosed child, as with the other family members, use of support systems, negotiation with educational and welfare agents, views and hopes for the future. Autism research has documented parenting difficulties and negative emotional outcomes for parents of children with ASC, but has not examined possible positive outcomes of this experience. Personal growth literature emphasizes positive benefits perceived by individuals as emerging from difficult and even traumatic life experiences.
This study aims to examine the possibility that parenting a child with ASC can lead to perceived positive aspects and personal growth by the parent. Using a qualitative approach, it explores the ways in which these positive experiences manifest themselves and documents parents' authentic, self-defined experiences, relating to their unique interactions with their child with ASC. The assumption is that these interactions may contain positive, growth promoting elements, which until now have been largely over-looked.
Methods: Nineteen parents of children with ASC were interviewed using semi-structured interviews. Interviews were designed to help parents reflect upon their parental experience and its effects on their lives and sense of self. Parents varied in background, level of functioning of their child with ASC, and time from diagnosis. This wide sampling has enabled the uncovering of varied narratives. Interviews were transcribed and content analysis was performed.
Parents reflect upon various positive aspects that the encounter with ASC had brought to their lives. A recurring central theme in parents' narratives was the sense of personal growth, including a sense of empowerment and personal strength, a new existential perspective or a spiritual-emotional experience, altered interpersonal realm (including aspects of family life, marriage, relationships outside the family and encounter with diversity) and increased expertise, professional or political involvement. In parallel, parents have reflected on the pain and hardship in their parental experience. The interrelations between enriching, positive factors and hardship or distress in parents' experiences, as well as factors associated with positive experiences and parents' personal growth will be discussed.
Conclusions: This work suggests a different perspective on parenting a child with ASC, demonstrating positive aspects of parental experience and even meaningful personal growth. This altered perspective can be harnessed by professionals when working with parents of children with ASC.