Fathers of children with autism tend to be either very involved or withdrawn and virtually absent from interactions with professionals—with the majority seemingly uninvolved. From this observation, many professionals assume that fathers do not wish to be involved. Is this really the case, or do men relate and need to be engaged somewhat differently?
Fathers are often poorly represented at IEP meetings, conferences, and support groups for parents of children with autism. Usually they are at home watching the children so that their partners can attend, or they are at work providing for their families. Men generally prefer to do things to help out as opposed to connecting by talking about the stresses and strains.
Until relatively recently, the role of fathers in child development was largely ignored in the professional literature. While traditionally regarded as providers and protectors, fathers were not expected to be involved in day-to-day parenting, with the notable exception of discipline. In emphasizing the importance of mothers, researchers lost sight of the father in the family context. The word parent became synonymous with mother. This same trend applied to fathers of children with disabilities. Consequently, the literature specifically about fathers of children with ASD is limited; however, the broader literature can inform contemporary practice and research.
Lamb (2010) found that past studies consistently reported that fathers tend to “specialize” in play, whereas mothers specialize in caretaking and nurturance. This narrow view failed to capture similarities of fathers and mothers on child development. The emerging role of fathers over the past three decades has spurred research. Increased father involvement has been demonstrated to result in improved cognitive competence, increased empathy, fewer sex-stereotyped beliefs, and better self-control.
Lamb further speculates that increased paternal involvement promotes both parents’ fulfillment. Fathers can be close to their children while mothers can also be close to their children and pursue career goals. Lamb concludes that fathers and mothers seem to influence their children in similar rather than dissimilar ways. Parental warmth, nurturance, and closeness are associated with positive child outcomes regardless of whether the parent involved is a mother or a father.
Jones and Mosher (2013) in a nationally representative survey of over 10,000 men found that most American fathers say they are heavily involved in hands-on parenting. This results in significantly better outcomes for their children in academic success, fewer behavior problems, and healthier eating habits. Fathers living with children younger than 5 reported that 90% bathed, diapered, helped toilet or helped their children to get dressed at least several times weekly. Even more played with their children and ate meals with them frequently. Two-thirds read to them several times weekly. Ninety percent of fathers living with children ages 5 to 18 reported eating meals together several times per week and talking with them about their day. Two out of three fathers helped with homework frequently, and about half took their children to or from activities.
Father Involvement in Clinical Interventions
Men are less likely than women to seek mental health services and medical treatment across race, ethnicity, age, and parental status (Addis & Mahalik, 2003). Not surprisingly, fathers are significantly less involved in clinical interventions for their children than mothers, and fathers tend not to be included in the overwhelming majority of research on child- and family-related therapy. Nonetheless there is evidence suggesting that fathers have a positive influence on child behavior when they are included in the mental health treatment.
Research has consistently shown that men are less likely than women to admit to uncomfortable or negative feelings (Addis & Mahalik, 2003). Seeking help typically involves recognition of problems and is in direct conflict with the masculine gender role which includes lack of emotional expression, control, and self-reliance. Typically, men have a more active coping style than women and prefer active problem solving rather than talking about the problems. The general misconception that therapy involves merely talking about problems rather than actively solving problems tends to deter men from participating in treatment. Engaging fathers requires effort by mothers and therapists whose attitudes about the importance of involving fathers in child and family are important.
Fathers of Children with Developmental Disabilities
Prior to 2000, there was a consensus in the professional literature that mothers and fathers initially respond differently to a child with a disability. Fathers seem less emotional and focus traditionally more on long-term problems such as the financial burden. Mothers respond more openly with their emotions and are more concerned with the challenges of the daily care of the child. Consequently, fathers who are less involved in daily interaction with their children tend to have a prolonged period of denial about the disability and its implications (Seligman and Darling, 2007).
Parental roles were thus polarized, and fathers were observed to be uncomfortable with female-dominated service systems. The daytime hours of schools and agencies did not accommodate fathers’ working lives. In their discussion of fathers in early intervention and family support programs, Davis and May (1991) pointed out that fathers of children with intellectual disabilities were frequently considered as an afterthought by professionals.
Fathers of Children with Autism
Recent research literature on fathers of children with autism lacks topics that relate to the involvement of fathers in intervention for their child and intervention on fathers themselves. In research on mothers and fathers of preschool and school-age children with autism, Hastings et al. (2005) found that fathers reported using more avoidant coping strategies and less problem-focused coping than did mothers. The emotions of fathers are often unacknowledged or seen as secondary to the needs of the child and mother, and these findings have clear implications for clinical practice.
While mothers typically seek help from external sources, fathers are more likely to rely on the support of their partner (Bristol et al., 1988). The implication is that clinicians will best meet the needs of fathers by working toward strengthening the relationship between the parents and facilitating communication on the day to day issues. Some fathers have expressed a wish to be supported by other fathers of a child with an ASD. Clinicians can facilitate these connections where men can discuss their concerns and possibly show emotion with peers.
Until recently, there was a trend toward research questions which looked only at stress and burden in families of children with developmental disabilities. Recent studies show that these negative impacts are neither as common nor as severe as previously believed. Blacher and Baker (2007) emphasize the shift to investigate the positive and negative impact in order to arrive at a more balanced view. Clearly, there is a role for incorporating positive perceptions in parent education and intervention programs.
Increasing Father Involvement
Given the increased evidence of greater male parent involvement with their children, one would expect greater participation of fathers in early intervention for their children with ASD. Nonetheless, mothers continue to be the primary participants in both autism research and early intervention. This de-facto one-parent participation model ignores the growing evidence that mothers and fathers each play an early and integral role in the development of their children, perhaps particularly in their social and communicative skills (Flippin & Crais, 2011). Continuing to ignore fathers may result in missing opportunities to maximize social-communicative gains for young children with ASD.
Evidence from studies of father–child interactions with typically developing children indicates that fathers offer different language models than mothers which make important contributions to children’s language development (Clarke-Stewart, 1980). Fathers tend to use a more complex language model with their children than do mothers such as with vocabulary that is more varied. Although it is likely that this may apply to communicative development for children with ASD, there is sparse data to confirm this. In their extensive review, Flippin and Crais (2011) found only three single-subject experiments that specifically reported that fathers participated in parent communication training with their children with autism. An assumption seems to be that outcomes for mothers also apply to fathers. However, as discussed, fathers have different language models and may have a unique influence on communication development of their children.
Also through play, both mothers and fathers help their children achieve higher level language and symbolic abilities, and there are qualitative and quantitative differences between parents. A father’s play with his child is typically more active and rough-and-tumble. In addition, fathers are more likely to engage in play that stretches beyond the physical properties of the toys (Labrell, 1996). 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, but the intervention did not record data specifically on fathers (Kasari, Paparella, Freeman, & Jahromi, 2008).
From a parental perspective, it tends to be more difficult to engage in play with a child who has less repetitive and more varied play. However, with intervention fathers may be uniquely suited to support the play development of their children with ASD.
By focusing primarily on mothers, researchers, and interventionists may be inadvertently placing burdens on mothers. Since fathers more commonly work more hours outside the home, employment provides a respite and may in part explain their lower levels of stress as compared to mothers. Increasing father involvement in early intervention and special education may have positive outcomes for both children and parents.
Flippin and Crais (2011) conclude that fathers have unique ways of playing and interacting with their children. Incorporating more play activities that reflect fathers’ tendency toward physical or “rough-and-tumble” play and increasing active sessions with fathers, as opposed to more didactic sessions, is a first step in making interventions more father-friendly. On the other hand, in general women tend to gather explanations and directions. Early intervention is a predominately female field which is relationship oriented, providing supportive feedback to parents, primarily mothers. Men prefer receiving feedback from peers. As opposed to waiting until all the information is gathered, men are more comfortable jumping in to take action and problem solve.
Increasing fathers’ involvement will likely require implementing more father-friendly learning and teaching styles such as peer feedback, task-oriented learning, and video modeling. Focusing on communication and play interventions in ASD research has potential to help fathers to feel more effective in their relationship with their child with ASD. Reduced maternal stress and greater family cohesion could be important collateral effects for the family.
Robert Naseef, Ph.D., is a psychologist and father of an adult son with autism. His latest book is Autism in the Family: Caring and Coping Together (2013) by Brookes Publishing. He also moderates a monthly father’s discussion group at www.autismbrainstorm.org. He can be contacted at RNaseef@altenativechoices.com, and he blogs on his practice website, www.alternativechoices.com.
Addis, M. E., & Mahalik, J. R. (2003). Men, masculinity, and the contexts of help seeking. American Psychologist, 58, 5-14.
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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.
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.
Pleck, J. H. (2010). Fatherhood and masculinity. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.) The role of the father in child development (pp. 27-57). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Seligman, M. & Darling, R.B. (2007) Ordinary families special children: A systems approach to childhood disability. New York: The Guilford Press.