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Autism, Parenting, and the Couple Relationship

With an increasing number of children presenting for therapy with a diagnosis of autism accompanied by funding from NDIS, it is easy for practitioners to become locked into an individual focus on the child and lose sight of the wider system in which they live and the problems expressed. The practitioner may find themselves working harder and harder with the child alone and overlook a key part of the system that can be central to change, the parents. While it is well established that in the general population the quality of parent’s relationship and parenting style directly affects children’s emotional and behavioural functioning, this has not been directly tested with children with an autism diagnosis. A study by Greenlee (2021) aims to address this using longitudinal data collected from 188 couples parenting a child with this diagnosis which explores the indirect effect of parental marital satisfaction on internalizing and externalizing symptoms via parenting styles. Both mothers’ and fathers’ ‘dissatisfaction in the marital relationship predicted a higher level of child externalizing symptoms 2 years later’. The authors suggest that the quality of the parent’s marital relationship produced authoritarian parenting attitudes and practices (i.e., low warmth and responsiveness and high levels of control)’ which negatively affects the child resulting in symptoms which may well present to therapy. Research of this type alerts the practitioner to the significant impact of the child’s key relationships on their presenting difficulties and the need to retain a systemic perspective inclusive of all family members.

Greenlee, J. Piro-Gambetti, B. Putney, J. Lauren M. Papp, L. Hartley, S. Marital satisfaction, parenting styles, and child outcomes in families of autistic children Family Process. 2021; 00:1–21.

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