Benefits of Physical Play for Fathers of Children with Autism

Saturday, May 14, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
J. L. Bloom1, M. N. Gragg1 and S. Horton2, (1)Psychology, University of Windsor, Windsor, ON, Canada, (2)University of Windsor, Windsor, ON, Canada
Background: Research suggests that fathers have become more involved with their children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) than in previous years, including engaging in play interactions with their children. For fathers of typically developing children, engaging in physical play has been associated with various benefits including greater happiness, a higher sense of self-worth, better communication, and lower stress. The benefits of engaging in physical play for fathers of children with ASD have not been directly studied. Potential benefits for fathers included improvements in parenting stress, which is a challenge that fathers of children with ASD typically experience. Physical play could also work to develop the father-child relationship.  

Objectives: The present study investigated fathers’ physical play with their children with ASD, and whether this was related to benefits for fathers. The present study also investigated whether physical play was related to fathers’ satisfaction with play and relationship quality with their children with ASD. Other exploratory questions were investigated, including fathers’ advice about play to other fathers; any similarities/differences in their play with their typically developing children; strategies for facilitating play; future aspirations for play; and how play affects the father-son relationship.

Methods: Fathers (i.e., biological, step-, adoptive-, foster-) of sons with ASD aged 4-11 (N = 60) completed an online survey that included ASD screening, questions on the frequency of fathers’ physical play and fathers’ well-being, and several short-answer questions. Fathers (Mage = 39.9) were primarily Caucasian, married, from Canada, biological fathers, and lived in the same home as their children with ASD (Mage = 6.9). A sub-sample of these fathers (N= 20) also completed a phone interview during which they answered more exploratory questions. 

Results: Multiple regression analyses revealed that more frequent physical play (i.e., tickling, piggyback riding) reported by fathers significantly predicted lower parenting stress scores. More frequent physical play was also significantly related to higher satisfaction with play and higher relationship-quality for fathers with their children with ASD. Themes of Physical Play, Relationship Building, Child Limitations for Play, Father’s Role, and Toys and Gameswere identified in the interview and short-answer responses.

Conclusions: Results suggested that fathers’ benefits of more frequent physical play with their children with ASD included lower stress and greater relationship quality. This finding is consistent with the literature on fathers of typically developing children. Fathers’ qualitative responses supported this finding.  As one father stated, “to be able to play with him and have that interaction is very good for my emotional kind of state of mind”. Implications for conceptualizing father-child play and for fathers’ involvement in, and benefits of, intervention programs will be discussed. Fathers also shared a list of the toys and games that they used to facilitate play with their children with ASD, to disseminate to fathers and ASD organizations.