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Study Says Moms of Children with Autism Parent Differently

Date Published: 
February 24, 2014

Mothers of children with autism use different parenting techniques than mothers of children who don't have the developmental disorder, according to a new study. When parenting a child with autism, the moms rely less on discipline to enforce rules and more on reinforcing desired behaviors, which the researchers called  "positive parenting."1

Those findings from a European study were reported recently in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Researchers surveyed almost 1,000 mothers of children ages 6 to 18 in Belgium and the Netherlands about parenting. A little more than half of those parents had a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), while parents in the "control group" did not.

"Mothers of a child with ASD were setting fewer rules and utilized less discipline than the control group during childhood as well as adolescence," according to the study.

Although their children had more problem behavior, the mothers of children with ASD "seem to be less strictly controlling," the study said. The study offered two different possible explanations for this difference. First, this may be because the behavior problems are interpreted differently, such as being triggered by sensory overload or changes in schedule. Parents may try to change those triggers for problem behavior. The mother also may be "showing and explaining children how to behave, rather than paying attention to the consequences of their negative behavior." Another explanation is that the parents may have been conditioned by their children's problem behavior to relax the enforcement of some rules.

Mothers of children with ASD were more likely to use "positive parenting" to shape their children's behavior. When their children were young, they also were more likely to reward positive behaviors with material items, in keeping with common behavioral techniques recommended for autism.

The mothers of children with ASD were more likely both to adapt the environment to their children's needs and also to stimulate their children's development, the study said. Those adaptations may include reducing distractions, using simple questions, or using an augmentative communication device with their children.1

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