Withstanding the weight of autism on fathers


To whom much is given, much is required. Much being the mind-boggling mantle that is parenting the autistic child. It is a double-edged sword in that behind those unfocused eyes lies a black box of talent and intelligence. If only the walls of his mind would let him talk! Here is a look at autism’s toll on fathers and how they can successfully manage the lives of their children as well as their own.

Autism and the father

“Fathers of adolescents and young adults with autism are really faring the worst,” reflects Sigan Hartley, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher, after leading a study on nearly 250 fathers of children with varying disabilities.

She calculated more than 30 percent of fathers of grown children with autism abide symptoms of depression so concentrated they necessitate clinical treatment. Hartley also notes these dads are pessimistic of the future for their child with autism, aggregately more than dads of kids with other disabilities.

On the other hand, research has highlighted the many benefits of a father manning the ship, staying on course and towing his child through the deep waters of speech and cognitive development.

Researchers Elizabeth Crais, Ph.D., and Michelle Flippin, Ph.D., denote a responsive father’s regular involvement with his child with autism can fortify the child’s social and communication skills for several reasons:

  1. Fathers largely use a higher level language with their children versus mothers. Specifically, they use more complicated words, questions and grammar, thereby challenging language skills and encouraging clarifying messages not received.
  2. Dads’ language styles tend to be more directive than mothers. Males’ communication is linguistically comparative and informational while that of females is innately seeking commonality. In motherhood this usually manifests as promoting conversation with child-centered questions and comments.
  3. Fathers and mothers play differently. Dads engage in more literal, active, rough-and-tumble play. In pretend play they largely elaborate with grandiosity, stretching beyond physical properties of the toys. Research shines a light on the negative impact of mothers interfering with imagination and structuring a child’s pretend play.

A recent census catalogued among husbands with a wife who works outside the home, 32 percent are the children’s primary caregiver.

On a website geared toward fathers for autism, one blogger calling himself Papa Bear writes fondly of his daughter with autism, nicknamed “the Redhead.” He speaks of the round-the-clock helicoptering of his daughter and why it is rearing a healthier young adult who will desire the autonomy that comes with self-directed regulation and expression.


How to rear a child with autism and not lose yourself

  1. Richmond Mancil, Ph.D., Brian A. Boyd, Ph.D., and Pena Bedesem, Ph.D., researched coping strategies, parental stress and autism. They found ineffective stress reduction strategies to be:
  • Escape-avoidance
  • Self-efficacy
  • Self-blame
  • Blanket optimism
  • Problem-focused strategies
  • Religious coping by way of stigmatic perceptions, such as attributing autism to God’s plan or a spiritual fortitude test

Proof positive tools for emotional fortitude included:

  • Information seeking
  • Spousal support
  • Positive reframing
  • Support groups
  • Treatment services
  • A day-to-day mentality
  • Flexible family schedules
  • Reframing
  • Benefit or sense-finding strategies
  • Spiritual guidance and seeking counsel
  • Placing less emphasis on careers and more on roles as parents
  • Greater tolerance and ambiguity in parenting the child
  • More leisure activities with extended family
  • Minimizing emphasis on others’ opinions of child and behavior
  • For fathers: big-picture problem-focused strategies

White River Academy’s residential treatment is a lifesaver for parents who are at their wits end in trying to bull-ride behavioral and mental health turbulence of teen boys 12-17. Our familial staff utilizes well-researched cognitive recovery tools, alternative therapies and positive peer culture to help realign boys with addictions, mental disorders or co-occurring issues.

About the author

Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. 

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top