Parenting an Adult with Autism

Parenting an Adult with Autism: A Look at Fathers and Emotional Prosperity


Having a grown child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can take a heavy toll on any parent. While the popular media often highlights the perspectives of mothers in the autism community, we often neglect the voices of fathers. While conventional gender stereotypes teach us that men are supposed to refrain from expressing their emotions,  research tells us that masking one’s true feelings can actually negatively impact emotional prosperity.  First, we’ll discuss the unique challenges that our fathers in the autism community are facing. Later, we’ll show you techniques that may help you and your loved ones cope.

Stress, Depression, and Pessimism About the Future

A 2012 study conducted by researchers Dr. Sigan Hartley and Dr. Marsha Seltzer, sampled 91 fathers of adolescents and young adults with Downs Syndrome (DS), Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), and ASD (Source). They found that fathers of children with ASD have a poorer psychological well being than fathers of children with DS and FXS, along with more than 30% of those fathers having experienced depressive symptoms severe enough to warrant clinical attention. This percentage is significantly higher than that of fathers of children with DS or FXS. Pessimism about the future along with the daily stresses of parenting a grown child with autism contribute to these numbers.

In addition, fathers who work heavy hours report the highest levels of parenting stress. Parenting stress can not only affect the psychological well being of an
individual, but it can also affect the marital relationship between spouses. In another study (Source) conducted by Dr. Hartley, the marital fates of 391 couples with autistic adolescent and adult children were investigated. These couples are more likely to divorce than couples who have children with no developmental issues. This is important to note because when enduring parenting stressors, spouses often turn to each other for emotional support. Moreover, dissatisfaction in a marriage can often lead to more of a distance between father and child. Therefore, a strong marital relationship is necessary to minimize the impact of any child-related stressors.

A father’s attitude towards his child’s behavior is essential in improving the parent-child bond. In the following interview with Dr. Sigan Hartley, we learn about her research on fathers and their relationships with their grown children with autism. You may find some of her insights surprising.

Parenting an Adult with Autism

MHAF: Depression and pessimism may take a toll on the father-child relationship.  What are some ways that fathers can improve their relationship with their adult child with autism?
HARTLEY: Fathers who are able to identify positive behaviors that their child engages in and who give their child credit for those behaviors report feeling closer to their child with autism. These parents are then likely to act in ways that encourage those positive behaviors to occur again. Thus, parents should be encouraged to focus on their child’s strengths and positive behaviors and the ways that their child promotes these behaviors and strengths.

At times, it is easy to only focus on the problematic behaviors and the grown child’s impairments. Helping parents get out of this cycle and focus on positive behaviors and the child’s active role in promoting these behaviors is critical.

Coping Strategies

The fact that fathers of grown autistic children can be exposed to such emotional trauma is a hard reality to face, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. According to Dr. Hartley, interventions using a family systems approach are the most beneficial. These interventions bring family members together and interconnect all of their individual experiences. A father will realize that his psychological well being is linked to his wife’s psychological well being, and communication amongst family members is essential in coping and managing stress. Please watch the following video that depicts the unconditional relationship between a father and his son and sheds a light on the hardships parents might face.

According to Hartley’s research, fathers often place an emphasis on support for their child’s social development. This means that they find an importance in services that aim to improve their child’s social skills and interactions. Contrastingly, mothers place an emphasis on the qualities of professionals and communication with other parents of children with disabilities. Here is what Dr. Hartley has to say about coping strategies:

MHAF: What are some recommendations that you would give to fathers coping with their adult child’s autism? Are there any coping strategies that you would suggest?
HARTLEY: Parents often rely on supports from professionals. There is an important need to make sure that these supports are family-centered in that professionals establish relationships with parents based on mutual respect and open communication, match the needs and priorities of the family, and provide parents with choices and control over treatment. In general, we have found lots of overlap in the support needs of mothers and fathers of children and adolescents with autism. Both rated family-wide impacts (support for marriage and siblings), developing partnerships with professionals, gaining education about their child’s disability, having appropriate educational plans, and support for self-care as being most important. [Furthermore], supports around helping fathers avoid work-family stress spillover and building time for relaxing may be very important. Some examples of emotion management strategies include exercising, healthy diet, sleep routines, mediation, yoga, counseling, writing down feelings, and relaxation training. [When it comes to improving the marital relationship], it is important to engage in positive couple interactions on stressful parenting days, when emotional resources are low.

Support Groups

Support groups that are specifically geared towards fathers who have grown children with autism do exist and are readily accessible depending on one’s location. Here is a list of support services offered in each state. According to Dr. Hartley, these groups are powerful resources that can offer emotional support for people dealing with similar experiences.

MHAF: Do you think that father support groups can improve the emotional prosperity of fathers? If so, how?
HARTLEY: There are a growing number of support groups focused on fathers. These can be very effective ways to help fathers feel like they have a community of support. Such groups can be an important source of sharing tips and strategies and an avenue for gaining support for challenges. We are seeing father support groups pop up around the country. Also, more and more fathers are attending parent support groups with their partners.   

There isn’t a lot of research involving adults with autism and their fathers. Most of the research is focused on the mothers. This is a major source of concern within the community when seeking the best ways to support these parents. We commend the efforts of Dr. Hartley for focusing her work on issues regarding fathers with autism, and we thank her for sharing her insights. We hope her work inspires others to follow suit.


Parenting an Adult with AutismAUTHOR



Hartley, S. L., Seltzer, M. M., Head, L., & Abbeduto, L. (2012). Psychological Well-being in Fathers of Adolescents and Young Adults with Down Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, and Autism. Family Relations61(2), 327–342.

Hartley, S. L., Barker, E. T., Seltzer, M. M., Floyd, F. J., Orsmond, G. I., Greenberg, J. S. et al. (2010). The relative risk and timing of divorce in families of children with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 449-457.

1 Comment

  1. Peg

    I LOVE involved fathers of children with autism. EVERY child deserves to have a father committed to his/her well-being, who treats the child with the same dignity/respect they afford their other children. THESE fathers are my heroes.

    Unfortunately my son with autism, like many others, has a father who simply cannot relate….who has never chosen to participate in his life….and who has abandoned him with the comment, “Well just make him a ward of the State and be done with it.”

    So my hat’s off to those who DO GET IT! And who are true partners with the mother in making the individuals life fulfilling!

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