When Dads Engage Autistic Kids More, Everybody Wins

By Rick Naurert PhD
September 23rd, 2022
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.
When Dads Engage Autistic Kids More, Everybody Wins

University of Illinois researchers have found that when fathers read to their kids ¬†with autism and take active roles in caregiving, they help the child develop, boost mom’s mental health, and probably feel better themselves.

When dads step up their involvement, mothers of children with autism reported fewer depressive symptoms when their children were four years old. Taking an active role includes helping a child improve their literacy and performing responsive caregiving activities, such as soothing children when they were upset or taking the child to the doctor.

In the study, Daniel J. Laxman, Ph.D., who conducted the research for his doctorate in human development and family studies, analyzed data on 3,550 children, including 50 children with autism spectrum disorders and 650 children with other disabilities.

Information also was collected on mothers’ well-being and fathers’ involvement in several parenting activities: literacy; play; routine caregiving, such as bathing; and responsive caregiving.

Greater involvement of fathers in caring for their children with autism may be especially important, as previous research has shown that mothers of these children often experience higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety than other mothers.

Fathers who read to their children, or respond when the child cries, can give the mothers respite, enabling mothers to perform other tasks or engage in self-care activities that boost their mood and reduce stress, said Laxman.

“One of the key criteria of autism is difficulty with communication, which may explain why these children’s mothers are especially susceptible to stress and depression,” Laxman said.

“It can be very frustrating for parents and upsetting for children when children struggle with communication. If fathers are reading to their kids, telling stories or singing songs, it is going to be very beneficial for the child’s development of communication skills and learning words.

“By improving children’s communication skills, fathers’ literacy activities may help alleviate some of the mothers’ concerns and stress related to these problems.”

The families in the study were participants in the National Center for Education Statistics Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, which collected data on more than 14,000 children’s development at the ages of nine months, two and four.

Prior research and work by early interventionists has focused solely on mothers’ parenting of their children with autism, reflecting societal expectations that fathers are less involved, said co-author Brent A. McBride, Ph.D., a professor of human development and director of the Child Development Laboratory at Illinois.

“In family systems that include children with autism, the stressors are huge, and mothers need all the support they can grasp,” McBride said.

“Whether it comes from the child’s father, their social network, or online resources, mothers need additional support to be able to continue functioning in an effective way. We, as a society, have to ask men to become involved, and it’s very important that men fully understand the reasons why their support and active engagement in parenting is so critical for the family’s functioning and for the child.”

The study sample was restricted to families in which both biological parents resided with the child for their first four years to ensure that the father’s presence could influence the mother’s depressive symptoms.

Training and professional development opportunities must be made available to early interventionists and other professionals who work with families so they can find ways to get fathers more involved in parenting activities, McBride said.

However, Laxman said that some prior research has suggested that conflict between mothers and fathers increases when men become more involved in child care. Therefore, it’s critical that parents discuss how they’re going to handle discipline, or activities such as dressing the child or feeding them, and whether the child will be allowed to participate in making some of these decisions.

“It’s really important if we want fathers to do more that moms and dads take time to discuss it, and recognize that they’re going to have different perspectives, and that’s completely OK,” Laxman said.

“In fact, it’s probably good for kids to receive those different perspectives that adults bring. It’s also important that parents try to be in as much agreement as possible, and when they’re not in agreement, to reach a decision so they’re interacting with their children in a consistent way.”

Source: University of Illinois

Dr. Rick Naurert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Naurert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.