Parent-Adolescent Relationships in the Context of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Friday, May 18, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
1:00 PM
M. M. Abdullah and W. A. Goldberg, Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA
Background:  Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) demonstrate early socio-communicative impairments by diagnostic definition (American Psychiatric Association, 2000); these impairments have a substantial bearing on their ability to develop social relationships, even within the family.  Relationships between adolescents with ASD and their parents are fundamental social relationships that are inadequately understood.  Although parent-adolescent relationships have been a mainstream topic among adolescent development researchers for nearly thirty years (Steinberg, 2001), there exists only a handful of studies examining this crucial relationship in the ASD literature.  This is the first study, to our knowledge, that examines parent-adolescent relationship quality from the perspectives of mothers, fathers, and adolescents with ASD.

Objectives:  (1) Compare self-reported parent-adolescent relationship quality in families of adolescents with and without ASD; (2) Assess the concordance of relationship quality reports between parents and adolescents with ASD.

Methods:  Thirty-one families have participated in this study thus far; 22 with adolescents with ASD and no comorbid intellectual disability (Mage = 14.78 years, SD = 0.39) and 9 with typically developing (TD) adolescents (Mage = 15.32 years, SD = 0.63).  Mothers (Mage = 46.84 years, SD = 6.40) and fathers (Mage = 48.62 years, SD = 6.68) were predominantly Caucasian, well-educated, and middle-class. Parent-adolescent relationship quality was assessed with the Network of Relationships Questionnaire-Relationships Qualities Version (NRI-RQV; Furman & Buhrmester, 2008).  Mothers, fathers, and adolescents completed this 30-item questionnaire, which measured closeness (i.e., companionship, disclosure, emotional support, approval, and satisfaction) and discord (i.e., conflict, criticism, pressure, exclusion, and dominance).

Results: Diagnostic groups did not differ on demographic variables.  Mann-Whitney tests were used to compare ASD and TD groups on parent-adolescent closeness and discord.  There were no significant differences between groups in parent-adolescent closeness.  However, mothers of adolescents with ASD reported marginally higher parent-adolescent discord compared to mothers of TD adolescents (z = -1.86, p = .063).  Fathers of adolescents with ASD reported significantly higher parent-adolescent discord (z = -2.12, p = .034) compared to fathers of TD adolescents.  Adolescents with ASD reported significantly higher mother-adolescent discord (z = -2.14, p = .033) and father-adolescent discord (z = -2.31, p = .021) compared to TD adolescents.  

To assess for level of agreement in reports of closeness and discord between mothers and adolescents and fathers and adolescents in the ASD group, Spearman correlations were calculated.  Mothers and adolescents demonstrated moderate to strong agreement in their reports of closeness (rho = .44, p = .046) and strong agreement in their reports of discord (rho = .64, p = .002).  Fathers and adolescents showed strong agreement in their reports of discord (rho = .72, p < .001); however, their reports of closeness were not significantly related. 

Conclusions:  Relationships between parents and adolescents with ASD were close in companionate and emotional ways, but significantly more discordant compared to parents and TD adolescents. In terms of shared perspectives on relationship quality, fathers and adolescents with ASD did not concur on their reports of closeness. Findings have implications for targets of intervention for families of adolescents with ASD.

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