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Parenting a Child with Autism: Is There a Silver Lining?

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network
Date Published: 
February 9, 2015

Photo of mother and daughter doing yoga for article on autism parentingIs there a silver lining to parenting a child with autism?

Many studies have focused on the "bad news" of parenting a child with autism, such as higher rates of stress and depression.1 Regina Conti knew from personal experience, however, that raising a child on the spectrum could be rewarding. "For me, there has been something positive about parenting a child with autism," she said.

As a psychologist and researcher, Dr. Conti knew she could do something about the largely negative focus of most research on raising a child with autism. So she launched two of her own studies to investigate positive aspects of the parenting experience.

She recruited a total of 203 mothers of children with autism from the Interactive Autism Network for studies of their parenting goals and levels of satisfaction in their lives. In one study, she also compared 74 of these parents to a group of mothers of typically developing children. (She only studied mothers because she could not recruit enough fathers for the project).2

Although sparked by Dr. Conti's personal experiences, these studies also were an extension of her professional life researching "goals and motives over the past 20 years."

"My experience as a mother of a 9-year-old son with autism is what sparked my interest in understanding the goals that parents are working toward and the ways they are influenced by the experience of having a child with autism," explained Dr. Conti, Associate Professor of Psychology at Colgate University. "I found the literature on parenting children with autism to have a focus on the negative outcomes associated with this experience. While I have experienced many stressors related to my son's autism, I also thought that my experiences with him caused me to look at parenting in a new, more compassionate, way. I wanted to document this silver lining to having a child with autism."

Compassion vs. self-image parenting

Photo of Dr. Regina Conti, autism researcher Dr. Regina Conti

Dr. Conti divided parenting goals into two categories, which were taken from research into other types of relationships. Goals in the first category, labeled compassionate, were focused on understanding and meeting the child's needs. The second category, called self-image, included goals that make a parent look good. Parents pursuing self-image goals might want their child to earn straight A's, be the star of the school play, or be captain of the football team (or all three). Self-image goals can be more modest, such as wanting a child to bring home a decent report card or to keep from embarrassing the parent in public.

When she first became a parent, Dr. Conti said, "I was surprised how much self-image stuff was wrapped up in parenting." Anyone who has listened to a friend breathlessly recount the story of her baby walking early or being chosen for the highest reading group in kindergarten has experienced the power of self-image goals in parenting. "Parents really love basking in the glory of their children's accomplishments," Dr. Conti said.

As a gauge of their self-image goals, Dr. Conti asked parents if they try to get their children to "behave in a way that makes you proud" and if they give them "opportunities that will bring recognition." To measure their focus on compassionate goals, parents were asked whether they had compassion for their children's mistakes or weaknesses, and if they tried to learn more about how their children see the world.2

And the results are…

Dr. Conti wanted to find out what happens to parents when their children's autism makes it harder for them to compete with other children. Would having self-image goals affect their relationships with their children?

The short answer is no. She found that the self-image goals didn't affect mother-child relationships or mothers' feelings of satisfaction. In fact, some mothers adopted both compassionate and self-image goals at the same time.

As she predicted, she also found that the mothers of children with autism endorsed compassionate goals more strongly than the mothers of typically-developing children. Those goals also were associated with greater satisfaction in parenting, family life and parent effectiveness. Generally, moms who focused on compassionate goals were most satisfied with their parenting.

However, the moms of children with autism were less satisfied with their lives overall, and with their parenting, than the comparison group. That could be because of the extra stress and sacrifices they face coping with autism.2 Dr. Conti said the comparison group was small and slightly younger, but she doesn't believe those limitations can explain the differences between the two groups of mothers.

The study concluded that "compassionate parenting is a key to satisfaction for mothers of children with autism." Approaches such as "mindful parenting" might be useful for them.2 Mindful parenting refers to the practice of parents "listening with full attention when interacting with their children, cultivating emotional awareness and self-regulation in parenting, and bringing compassion and nonjudgmental acceptance" of children, according to a study in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review.3

To better appreciate a child's positive qualities, for example, a mindful parent could give him a sincere compliment every night before bed.2

Dr. Conti said her research is a starting point; more research should be done in this area. "This is the first time compassionate goals were used in the context of parenting," she said. Most of the previous research on compassionate and self-image goals comes from studies of friendships, particularly among college students.

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References: 
  1. Anderson, C. (2007, December 14). Relieving Parental Stress and Depression: How Helping Parents Helps Children. Interactive Autism Network.
  2. Conti, R. (2015). Compassionate Parenting as a Key to Satisfaction, Efficacy and Meaning Among Mothers of Children with Autism. J Autism Dev Disord. 2015 Jan 20. Abstract.
  3. Duncan, L.G., Coatsworth, J.D. & Greenberg, M.T. (2009). A Model of Mindful Parenting: Implications for Parent–Child Relationships and Prevention Research. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2009 Sep; 12(3): 255–270. Article.

Photo of Dr. Conti reprinted with permission of Colgate University.