International Meeting for Autism Research: Fathers--the Forgotten Man: Psychological Experiences of Parents of Children with Autism

Fathers--the Forgotten Man: Psychological Experiences of Parents of Children with Autism

Friday, May 13, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
11:00 AM
M. Elfert1 and P. Mirenda2, (1)North Vancouver, BC, Canada, (2)University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Background: Child psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg wrote a paper in 1957 entitled “The Fathers of Autistic Children,” in which he said, “The psychiatric literature is rife with studies of childhood disabilities in which detailed and particular attention is given to personality traits in the mother presumed relevant to the disorder in her child….Father has been the forgotten man” (p. 715). Although Eisenberg’s seminal article was written more than 50 years ago, it still describes much of the research literature on parents of children with autism today. The majority of research on the experiences of “parents” of children with autism involves predominantly mothers—either exclusively or primarily—as participants.

Objectives: To analyze the literature examining psychological variables affecting the parents of children with autism with regard to the participants involved.

Methods: An exhaustive literature search was conducted to identify quantitative research studies that included measures of stress, coping, depression, anxiety, and/or social support as the primary variables of analysis. Inclusion criteria included publication in an English language peer-reviewed journal and participants who were the parents of children with autism, either exclusively or as a distinct group. Studies were categorized according to (1) the aforementioned psychological variable(s); and (2) the study participants who were involved.

Results: Out of 15 studies that investigated social support, 6 (40%) examined parents as a homogenous group (i.e., genders were not analyzed separately), 4 (27%) compared mothers to fathers, 5 (33%) examined mothers only, and none examined fathers only. Out of 21 studies investigating coping, 7 (33%) examined parents and mothers compared to fathers, 6 (29%) examined mothers only, and 1 (5%) examined fathers only. Out of 16 studies investigating depression, 2 (13%) examined parents, 9 (56%) compared mothers to fathers, 5 (31%) examined mothers only, and none examined fathers exclusively. Out of 8 studies investigating anxiety, 1 examined mothers only and the remaining 7 compared mothers to fathers. Finally, out of 36 studies investigating stress, 5 (14%) examined parents as a homogenous group, 17 (47%) compared mothers to fathers, 13 (36%) examined mothers only, and 1(3%) examined fathers only. Across all psychological variables, only one study dating back almost 20 years studied fathers’ experiences exclusively (Rodrigue, Morgan, & Geffken, 1992).

Conclusions: There continues to be a dearth of research on fathers’ experiences of parenting a child with autism. However, fathers have distinct psychological profiles from mothers (e.g., Ornstein Davis & Carter, 2008). Furthermore, fathers make distinct and direct contributions to both the spousal and parenting relationships (Hastings, 2003); thus, increased paternal participation in studies on parenting is both necessary and valuable. From an empirical perspective, studying fathers could provide important information about the unique experiences of this group and how they differ from (or are similar to) mothers. From a clinical perspective, research information on the “forgotten man” could be used to develop interventions that will support and assist fathers to be better parents and partners.

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