While a great deal of research can be found on how autism symptoms affect a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and interventions to manage these symptoms, there is far less research addressing how autism symptoms affect the marital relationship.
What limited research there is on the topic primarily reports negative outcomes for married couples with an ASD child such as increased stress levels, lower marital satisfaction, and increased risk of divorce compared to married couples without an ASD child.
While a number of factors can contribute to increased stress levels, lower marital satisfaction and increased risk of divorce in any marital relationship, this research study specifically explores whether the severity of an ASD child’s symptoms in any way affects a parent’s level of marital satisfaction with consideration of gender differences between the mother and the father.
Mothers’ Wear It
In comparing genders and the stereotypical roles attached to caregiving duties between mothers and fathers, research has found mothers do the majority of the caretaking when there is an ASD child in the family. Research explains how mothers taking on the role of primary caregiver is associated with a loss of identity (e.g., shift from career women to in-home autism specialist) and increased depression.
This is not surprising considering the personal investment necessary to care for an ASD child. Additionally, stress levels for the mother increase with decreased father involvement and spousal support, especially when the child has more severe ASD symptoms, thus contributing to lower marital satisfaction for the mother.
Fathers’ Don’t Bear It
For fathers, there is less research that addresses paternal issues relative to raising an ASD child. Yet a lack of research does not mean the father of an ASD child rarely experiences depressive symptoms, increased stress, or lower marital satisfaction. While similar symptoms to mothers may be displayed, how a father is affected may differ.
According to one study, a father’s increased stress levels were not a direct result of an ASD child’s symptom severity but related to the mother exhibiting depressive symptoms. This suggests as mothers’ display more depressive symptoms, fathers’ experience increased stress. Accordingly, this would indicate the severity of ASD symptoms may not be the key variable associated with lower marital satisfaction for males.
For both parents of an ASD child, the marital relationship and quality of this relationship have been researched with mixed reviews. Research shows parental experiences are impacted by the quality of the marital relationship. Parents who have a better marital relationship typically have a more positive perception toward their ASD child-parent relationship. This may also mean a more positive perception of symptom severity by the parent.
This systemic relationship described is founded in systems theory which suggests an individual is understood to be influenced by the social context or family system in which he/she resides. Therefore, any alterations within a child’s or parent’s social context or family system will logically change each individual’s experience within it. Identifying how symptom severity of an ASD child relates to the marital satisfaction of the couple is crucial for the family unit as a whole.
Surveying the Sample
The analyses for this study included 22 married couples between 18 and 65 years of age, with only one child diagnosed with ASD aged two or older. From this data set, the average age of parents was 40 years old, with 93 percent still in their first marriage and 7 percent in their second marriage.
Among all couples, the cumulative average of years married to their current spouse was 13 years. Participants were recruited by the researcher at local autism centers and through public advertisement. Each parent completed three self-report measures (Demographic Information Sheet, Locke-Wallace Short Marital Adjustment Test, Child Autism Rating Scale-Parent) independent of one another.
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Outcomes and Findings
Results suggested parents who reported higher symptom severity had significantly lower levels of marital satisfaction. In comparing gender, the marital satisfaction of females was not significantly different from males.
Statistically, there was no significant difference found between the marital satisfaction levels of mothers reporting low symptom severity to mothers reporting high symptom severity. However, there was a significant difference between the marital satisfaction of fathers reporting low symptom severity and fathers reporting high symptom severity.
Based on specific items rated by parents, symptoms with the highest severity ratings included:
1. Inability to relate to people
2. Verbal communication (e.g., echoes, pronoun reversal)
3. Use of senses (e.g., licking, mouthing)
4. Non-verbal communication
Taking this one step further, the study looked at the impact of gender differences and symptom severity with the addition of three other variables of interest (age of the child, total years married, total treatment child received) on marital satisfaction. Results indicated only symptom severity ratings are a significant predictor of marital satisfaction.
Although final data suggests couples who have been married longer, have an autistic child with more severe symptoms and/or an older autistic child, were found to be at a greater risk of lower marital satisfaction. More surprisingly, higher symptom severity ratings indicate a stronger effect on lowering males’ marital satisfaction than females.
Overall, marital happiness ratings indicated that the majority of this study’s sample (86 percent):
- were happy to very happy in their current marriage
- indicated that if ever given the opportunity to live life all over again, then she or he would marry the same person
Where to from Here?
Continuing to identify specific variables impacting marital satisfaction of parents with an autistic child is essential to improving marital outcomes. A number of studies focus on the child’s well-being based on the assumption that if the needs of the child are managed, then the well-being of the couple or family is managed.
Rather than assume parental problems or lower marital satisfaction are a result of the negative influences of the child’s behavior, it is quite possible a parent might project more negative perceptions than positive perceptions of the child-parent relationship as a result of being in an unstable marriage.
Further support for parents with an autistic child should aim to focus on empowering the couple by ensuring more time is spent together, increasing social support, providing adaptive resources, and attending to vulnerable areas within the marriage (e.g., sexual relations, finances, role expectations).
There is a need for research to further identify variables specific to males or females that predict relationship success and promote positive perceptions of the child-parent relationship.
This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies