Academics / Fall 2015

Defeating stereotypes with truth about autism

The role of a parent is not one that is easy, and it certainly does not come with a guide book. At best, parents are guided by the people around them, and to build a successful family relationship, couples must lean on each other for support. But even with a full support system, the weight of the world is sometimes too much and the end result is divorce.

Now, imagine if the parental role includes an autistic child—this adds another life stressor into the mix.

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A common statistic bandied around the autistic support community claims that 80 percent of marriages into which an autistic child is born end up in divorce. But does having an autistic child truly mean the risk for divorce is higher? According to researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, it doesn’t. The myth was first debunked in May 2010, and two of Mount Mercy’s Marriage and Family Therapy graduate program students have taken it upon themselves to join in the crusade against negative stereotypes placed on families with an autistic child.

“The divorce rate among families is thought to be as high as 80 percent,” said MFT graduate student Shannon Parker about why she chose her research topic. “So I really wanted to focus on—instead of so much negativity surrounding autism—the positive and how families adapt and persevere. There are good things to autism, too, and I want to bring awareness to those things.”

While Parker is studying how marriages remain successful after an autism diagnosis, her research partner Courtney Fox chose to study how whole families adjust to life after a diagnosis. The duo teamed up to interview six heterosexual married couples and four individuals, some from as far away as North Carolina and New Mexico.

Personal questions such as “Can you describe how you and your partner deal with adversity?” and “What would you identify as you and/or your family’s strengths that were utilized around the time of the diagnosis?” have helped the team delve into the inner workings of relationships. Other questions such as “What resources have you and your family found to be most helpful in living with an Autism Spectrum Disorder?” seek to discover society’s response to autism.

Their research led the two to discover something beautiful.

“What I found fascinating is that every single parent said they would not change their child,” Parker said. “Their explanations were things like ‘My kid would be a different person’ and ‘I love who they are now.’ It’s one of the things I enjoyed most about the research.”

The common response was comforting to Parker, who has two autistic children of her own.

“We are embracing having children with autism spectrum disorder and finding new ways to deal with adversity that we might not have been able to deal with before,” she said. “Being a parent of children with autism spectrum disorders has taught me so many things in life that I don’t think I would’ve realized or known about, and it has allowed me to help others, which I really enjoy.”

Fox, who studied family relationships, took special interest in the sibling response.

“The siblings—older or younger—look at the world differently,” she said. “It’s almost like they have a kinder heart. They know what it’s like for someone to be teased, and they live their lives differently because of it. They learn how to cope differently.”

Though outside forces play a factor, the duo identified the key to strong relationships during and after an autism diagnosis is related to coping skills, teamwork between parents and openness about the diagnosis.

“So many things need a cure,” Fox said. “But we’re not going to have one today or tomorrow, so it’s important to understand how we can help these families build a better future. We need to do something now. Our research aims to help families understand resources, what their future might look like, and most importantly, that autism will not ruin their lives; it will change it, but it will not ruin it. I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Fox also said the most important thing a parent can do for their autistic child is to be their advocate.

“Children with diagnosis such as autism are too often given limitations on what they are expected and allowed to do, almost like they are put in a box,” she said. “Unfortunately, this does not help the child; it limits the child’s ability to learn, grow and develop their own personalities. Just because the child is different, doesn’t mean they are incapable; it simply means they will reach their accomplishment via a different method.”

Their journey through research was not a lonely one. Dr. Jacob Christenson, assistant professor and clinical director for the Marriage and Family Therapy graduate program, and Dr. Ashley Merritts, associate professor for Marriage and Family Therapy, guided the two through the process. With experienced help, Fox and Parker felt at ease with the difficult task ahead of them.

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“Only about 30 percent of our students engage in any research efforts,” said Christenson, who has 15 years of research experience. “Each year we recruit and invite six to nine of our best students to be a part of a research team model. Through that model, we are able to collaborate and work together to promote our projects and further our research interests.”

Both Fox and Parker plan to pursue a doctorate after graduating from Mount Mercy in December 2015, and because of the opportunity for research, Christenson said the two have become well versed in their topic and are working to create new knowledge in the field, which by itself, is an incredibly rewarding endeavor.

 

Written by Amanda Mayotte ’15

 

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