Male role models are important for children, and boys and girls growing up on the autism spectrum are no exception. Fathers are more involved than ever, and research backs up their impact on children. However, when a child has autism there are often steep challenges for the typical male parent. Let’s take a look at the potential for growth and how to overcome the barriers that autism presents.
Research Findings about Father Involvement Generally and with ASD
- A nationally representative survey of over 10,000 men found that most American fathers report being heavily involved in hands-on parenting. (Jones and Mosher, 2013) 90% of these fathers said they bathed, diapered, helped with toileting or getting dressed, eating meals together, and talking about their day. Even more played with their children frequently. This type of father involvement has been shown to result in better academic success, fewer behavior problems, and healthier eating habits.
- Susan Adams recently reported in Forbes that men who spend more time with their children are likely to have a greater sense of satisfaction at work and less desire to change jobs. They are also less likely to experience conflicts at home according to Beth K. Humberd, assistant professor of management at University of Massachusetts and one of the study’s co-authors.
- According to Flippin and Crais (2011), studies of father–child interactions with typically developing children indicate that fathers offer different language models than mothers which make important contributions to children’s language development. Fathers tend to use a more complex language model than mothers, and this likely applies to children with ASD.
- New research from the University of Illinois also suggests that fathers who read to their infants with autism and take active roles in caregiving activities promote healthy development in their children and boost mothers’ mental health as well (Forrest, 2015).
- Through play, both mothers and fathers help their children develop language. A father’s play is typically more active and rough-and-tumble. As their child’s primary play partner, fathers have a distinctive role in supporting their child’s development through play. Research has demonstrated that interventions can improve both play and language outcomes for children with ASD (Kasari, Paparella, Freeman, & Jahromi, 2008).
It’s not easy to do in practice
When you love someone you want to be with them, but children with autism can be hard to be with. Typical children are engaged every waking hour, but it’s not easy to engage with a child on the spectrum. They often prefer to do the same things over and over again. Parents become easily exhausted or frustrated—not to mention feeling rejected and sad.
Even though there’s a huge potential for fathers to contribute positively to the development of children on the spectrum, many fathers feel powerless to engage in play with a child who has more repetitive and less varied play. Most fathers have a difficult time talking about their feelings especially when there is a problem that they are unable to fix. 80% of children diagnosed with ASD are boys which can be especially difficult for fathers who expected a different kind of son.
Make a Plan to go forward: What Fathers can do
First, acknowledge the spectrum of painful feelings including the sadness, hurt, frustration, anger, embarrassment, rejection, etc. Share your experience with your partner, family members, and friends who want to support you. Like the weather, your unpleasant feelings will come and go periodically. Accepting this experience opens the door to hope, building a connection, and celebrating every little step of developmental progress.
Second, spend some time each day joining your child on the floor, at the table, the screen, or outdoors watching and following your child’s lead, having fun, and building connection. Your child with autism is still a child and needs more than therapy. It may not be what you imagined, but it can still be wonderful regardless of the severity of the autism. As fathers, we cannot control the outcome for any child, but we do make a difference, and we can have a rewarding relationship with a child growing up on the spectrum.
Third, focusing too much on behavior and trying to change someone with autism can suck the joy out of your relationship with your son or daughter. This may seem impossible with your child’s behavioral issues, but this does not mean denying real problems. It just means paying attention and cultivating the moments we might overlook or ignore, when problems are absent, such as our children running to us when we get home, or our partner glad to see us after a long day at work or home or both.
Fourth, attend as many meetings as possible with your child’s school and other service providers. Don’t hide behind your work. Being an active partner in the parent-professional partnership is an opportunity for fathers to deepen their understanding of their child’s strengths and challenges and use their problem solving skills. Many couples report better results in collaboration with professionals, and mothers experience less stress and more happiness with their partner.
From my own experience as a father, I know my playful involvement added to the many laughs and cuddles my son experienced growing up with severe autism and at the very least my serious involvement helped him to be better understood and get the best help available. The science is in: wherever a child starts on the autism spectrum, with parent involvement and good services progress is possible; and father involvement makes a difference.
Adams, S. (2015, January 12). The More Time Dads Spend With Their Kids, The Happier They Are At Work, Forbes, January 12, 2015.
Jones, J. & Mosher, W. D. (2013). Fathers’ involvement with their children: United States, 2006-2010. National Health Statistic Reports; no. 71. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
Flippin, M. & Crais, E. R. (2011). The need for more effective father involvement in early autism intervention: A systematic review and recommendations. Journal of Early Intervention, 33, 24-50.
Kasari, C., Paparella, T., Freeman, S., & Jahromi. L. B. (2008). Language outcomes in autism: Randomized comparison of joint attention and play interventions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 125-137.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2015, July 14). Dads’ parenting of children with autism improves moms’ mental health: Fathers’ engagement in literacy, caregiving activities reduces mothers’ depression, stress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 6, 2016 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150714131600.htm
Robert Naseef, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, public speaker, and father of an adult son with autism. His latest book is Autism in the Family: Caring and Coping Together (2013) by Brookes Publishing. On the web at www.DrRobertNaseef.com. He can be contacted at DrRobertNaseef@gmail.com.