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Marital and Coparenting Quality in Families of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)

Thursday, 2 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
A. R. Ly1 and W. A. Goldberg2, (1)Psychology, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, (2)Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA
Background: Because the nature of ASDs profoundly affects the family as a unit, there is a call for research to take a systemic approach to examine the interconnected relationships between parents and their children. Most of the existing research focuses on the mother; there is little information about fathers of children with ASDs and little about the family triad. The current multi-method, multi-source study includes both dyadic and triadic family constructs as reported by and observed for both mothers and fathers of children with ASDs.

Objectives: To determine if the level of ASD symptoms moderates the relationships between marital quality and coparenting with child behaviors

Methods: Participants were 60 families of children diagnosed with ASDs aged 3-7 years (M = 5.33; SD= 1.37). Mothers and fathers were diverse in terms of ethnicity, education, and income. Parents completed questionnaires and were observed with their child in videotaped play interactions at the family home. Two measures of aspects of marital functioning were used: (1) Marital Adjustment Test (Locke & Wallace, 1959) and (2) the marital conflict subscale of Braiker & Kelley’s (1979) Partnership Questionnaire. Two methods were used to assess coparenting: (1) the Coparenting Scale (McHale, 1997) and observer ratings from triadic family play session (McHale et al., 2001). Observed coparenting resulted in three factors: family harmony, hostility-competitiveness, and parenting discrepancy. Children’s adaptive and problem behaviors were measured on the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-II (Sparrow, et al., 2005). Negative affect was measured using a subscale of the Children’s Behavior Questionnaire-Very Short (Putnam & Rothbart, 2006). The Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ; Rutter, et al., 2003), a measure of social-communicative impairment, was tested as a moderator.

Results: For both mothers’ and fathers’ reports, the relationship between self-reported coparenting and child behavior outcomes is not moderated by the level of child symptoms. Using observed coparenting, the relationship between any of the observed coparenting factors and mothers’ reports of child behaviors is not moderated by the level of child symptoms. However, for fathers, the level of ASD symptoms emerged as significant moderators of the relationships between: (1) parenting discrepancy and child adaptive behaviors (β = .24, p< .05),  (2) hostility-competitiveness and child maladaptive behaviors (β = .39, p< .01), and (3) family harmony and child negative affect (β = .39, p< .05). For children with low levels of ASD symptoms, greater family harmony and parenting discrepancy are associated with poorer child outcomes; greater hostility-competitiveness is associated with better child outcomes. For children with a high level of symptoms, the opposite findings are found: greater family harmony and parenting discrepancy are associated with better child outcomes; greater hostility-competitiveness is associated with poorer outcomes.

Conclusions: Although many researchers regard family involvement in the intervention process as a crucial (Dawson & Osterling, 1997), little empirical data have been available about fathers and the family system. Our results reinforce the importance and complexity of including fathers and contribute to the literature on the conceptual and empirical distinctions between marital quality and coparenting.

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