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Looking at the bonds that strengthen couples raising kids with autism

Study identifies personality traits and coping strategies that strengthen spousal relationships in families with kids on the spectrum
July 08, 2015

In a newly published study, researchers describe the coping styles and attitudes that help keep spousal relationships strong and positive as parents care for a child who is affected by autism.

Their report appears this week in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

"In our day-to-day work with families of children with autism, we have been struck by the strength of the parents and the strength of the marital bonds of many families," says senior author Michael Alessandri. Dr. Alessandri directs the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.

"Instead of perpetuating the 'doom and gloom' model of autism's effect on the family, we sought to look at families through a more optimistic lens," he says.

A substantial number of studies have documented the stresses that parenting a child with autism places on parents and siblings. In particular, the pressure can take its toll on the parents' relationship with each other. These findings have helped draw attention to the importance of supporting the entire family of a child affected by autism.

To understand what helps these moms and dads strengthen their bond, the University of Miami researchers tried to identify the factors associated with their spousal happiness.

For the study, 67 couples parenting a child with autism answered questionnaires measuring the link between specific personality traits and coping styles and their satisfaction with their relationship.

The most important factors – for both mothers and fathers – included seeking emotional support, receiving spouse support and “benefit finding” – the tendency to find the good in a bad situation. To a lesser extent, optimism and support from friends were likewise associated with greater relationship satisfaction.

"We want to highlight the reasons why those families do well," Dr. Alessandri says. "After all, it is the positive outcomes that will truly inform our clinical work and help shape more impactful treatments for families…. Strengthening these qualities should be the target of family-focused interventions."

Other important findings of the study include:

* A parent’s self-perceived strength also correlated with his or her relationship satisfaction.

* Mothers were more likely to rely on social support to help them cope with challenges.

* Mothers reported greater levels of “benefit finding” than did fathers.

* Overall, perceived partner support was more important to relationship satisfaction for mothers than it was for fathers.

* One partner’s high relationship satisfaction directly related to the high satisfaction of the other.

* Optimism was associated with greater individual satisfaction, but didn’t predict a partner's shared satisfaction.

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