The Role of Family Rituals and Routines: A Resilience Perspective of Mealtimes and ASD

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
S. L. Curtiss, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Background: The shared meal is an iconic family ritual that provides significant benefits to families and its’ members. Mealtimes serve as a context for development, rich with experiences and interactions, that can promote child well-being. For example, direct and clear communication, flexible adherence to carrying out a meal, and the repetition of roles are characteristics of mealtimes that have been linked to positive child outcomes (Fiese, Foley, & Spagnola, 2006). More frequent shared family meals are related to literacy development (Snow & Beals, 2006), healthy eating habits (Larson, et al., 2007), positive values, social competencies, and supportiveness (Fulkerson, et al., 2006). Unfortunately, general research on family mealtimes precludes children with autism so much is still unknown about the impact of the shared family meal for children with autism and their families. The research that has examined the connection between autism and mealtimes has focused on challenges and deficits, not on mealtimes as naturally occurring family processes and sources of resilience.

Objectives: For autistic families, who are more often viewed in terms of their deficits, research is needed to resituate family meals as a place where some foster resilience, without ignoring the real challenges and struggles faced in everyday family life. The goal of this study was to explore the role of mealtime rituals and routines in family life.

Methods: This is a grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 2008) study of 16 family mealtimes. The families varied in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, community, and family structure. For each family, a mealtime was video recorded and one parent (all mothers) was interviewed about their family’s meals. The observations and interviews were interpretatively coded.

Results: Mealtimes reflect and reinforce family functioning (Figure 1). The affective components of the meal were critical for mealtimes to be a place where sharing and problem solving could happen. Affective climate and bond were achieved through a dialectic of acceptance and control. Parents used controlling behavior during the meal to support their children with being successful with the tasks related to the meal. Parents also showed acceptance in terms of how they created expectations and communicated those expectations. Navigating the dialectic of control and acceptance, being at peace with the tension, and having some degree of balance were necessary to achieve the affective and symbolic elements of the meal. Family functioning was also reflected in communication, expectations, and the quality of interactions. There were times, however, when families simply did not have access to the resources necessary to support their children and, in those cases, adaptive family functioning was difficult to achieve.

Conclusions: This research provides a grounded understanding of how families use mealtimes to promote connection and facilitate problem solving. It can be used to suggest ways in which families can be supported. Warmth, acceptance, balance, and appropriate expectations were critical for family meals to foster resilience.