Knowledge of Autism in Parents of Typically-Developing Children

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
2:00 PM
L. C. Newell1 and L. Knight2, (1)Psychology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA, (2)Psychology, Indiana University of PA, Indiana, PA

There is a discrepancy between the emergence of characteristics (as early as 12 months) and age of diagnosis (3 to 4 years or later) of autism that leaves a gap in time when the child is not involved in early intervention services. One factor that may contribute to this discrepancy is that parents are unaware or misinformed of the early characteristics of ASD and thus, miss warning signs in their child’s development.  There has only been one study to date that has assessed the general population’s understanding of the etiology and treatment of ASDs (Furnham & Buck, 2003) and the results suggested that their participants were somewhat accurate in their understanding of these areas.  However, no study has looked at parents’ knowledge of characteristics of individuals with an ASD, the kind of knowledge that would assist in identification of at-risk children and diagnosis of ASDs. 

Another factor in delayed diagnosis may be that parents have inaccurate information.  With the increased incidence of ASDs, there has also been an increase in public discussion about the causes and treatments of ASDs.  In many cases the information is inaccurate or false, leading to misunderstandings about the disorder that have potentially serious consequences for children. Parents are often the individuals who alert medical/educational personnel to potential developmental delays in their children; therefore, it is very important that parents have access to accurate information about ASDs, including current information about the factors that do and do not contribute to the development of ASDs.


The current study was designed to assess the knowledge base of parents of typically-developing children regarding ASDs.  A broad range of topics were assessed, particularly areas in which much misinformation is being discussed in the mass media.


A questionnaire was developed which included 80 statements about the causes, diagnosis, treatment, characteristics, development, outcomes and epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders.  Participants were asked to endorse items on a 5-point scale (1=strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree).  Participants included parents of at least one typically-developing child five years old or younger, with no children on the autism spectrum.


Preliminary results indicate the most parents have an understanding of autism that matches the research literature, with a high level of agreement among participants.  However, several issues emerged that consistently showed disagreement among participants.  The topics that received the most conflicting responses included 1) whether vaccinations were related to autism, 2) whether there is an autism epidemic, 3) the use of dietary restrictions to treat autistic symptoms, 4) the genetic basis of autism, 5) the role of prenatal care in the development of autism, and 6) social behaviors of individuals with an ASD. 


Parents of young, typically-developing children are most confused about autism in the areas where there has been a lot of public controversy and the areas which support early diagnosis (e.g., characteristics in infants and toddlers).  Public outreach measures need to be developed to better educate parents about the causes, treatments, and characteristics of autism.

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