How optimism can help to cope with raising a child with autism

Raising a kid with autism is – euphemism alert – not a walk in the park, even though the parents love their kid through and through. But luckily people can be resilient. How individuals and families deal with demanding and emotionally charged circumstances plays a large role in how they view and face the world and the possible outcomes of a difficult situation. There is a new study examining the relationship between optimism, coping strategies and depressive systems. The study shows that optimism can help to cope, but the study has some limitations, e.g. it was conducted in a specific demographic group, Hispanic mothers and fathers, although because of some good reasons. Also, because of the topic, the amount of participants in the study is not that big. But more important: the study can add to an interesting field of research.

From the press release:

In the first known study of its kind, University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences psychologists Dr. Michael Alessandri and Dr. Hoa Lam Schneider worked with Texas Christian University researchers to further the understanding of the relationship between optimism, coping strategies, and depressive symptoms among Hispanic mothers and fathers of children with autism.

Most research on ASD tends to focus on the negative aspects of how parents handle having a child with the disorder, such as exhibiting depressive symptoms or maladaptive behaviors.

“Parents are really resilient and we wanted to learn the positive aspects of how they adjust when raising a child with ASD, as well as the specific coping strategies they are using,” said Schneider, graduate student in the child clinical psychology program at UM’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Focusing on the positive coping strategies and characteristics such as optimism is especially important for clinical psychologists in helping families adjust to raising a child with ASD.

“Our hope is that by identifying these stress-buffering qualities we may be able to tailor clinical interventions for families in a way that affords them the opportunity to strengthen these personal characteristics and responses,” said Alessandri, clinical professor of psychology at UM and executive director of the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD).

The psychologists also studied the gender and ethnic similarities and differences between Hispanic parents and the larger general population of non-Hispanic families.

Their reason for focusing on Hispanic families was two-fold — not only does South Florida provide a rich source of data on Hispanic parents but there is also a dearth of autism research that focuses on ethnicity.

Though there are many similarities between ethnic groups, there are some differences, particularly involving the use of religious coping strategies. Hispanics tend to rely more on their religious faith as a coping strategy compared to non-Hispanic families.

Hispanic families are in turn more likely to use religious coping styles positively and view the challenge of raising a child with ASD as a test of their faith and part of a divine plan. Whereas non-Hispanic families who use religious coping strategies tend to use these techniques more negatively, viewing their circumstances as divine punishment, and then often engaging in denial and substance abuse to avoid dealing with their circumstances.

The researchers also discovered that there were little to no gender differences between Hispanic mothers and fathers in this study.

The team hopes to further their research on autism by uncovering some of the nuances within ethnic and cultural differences, such as acculturation, ideas about mental health and its treatment, and country of ancestral origin. They also hope to gain insight into Hispanic families across the socioeconomic spectrum.

“The coping experience, we imagine, is even more impacted by socioeconomic factors than race or ethnicity factors, but it continues to be challenging to recruit these diverse samples,” said Alessandri.

Though they are “just hitting the tip of the iceberg in understanding cultural and ethnic differences,” said Schneider, the team is one of the few in the field diving deep to help answer some of these questions, with the ultimate goal of providing more targeted counseling and clinical support to families with children with ASD.

Abstract of the study:

This study examined gender differences in the relationship between dispositional optimism, coping, and depressive symptoms of Hispanic mothers (n = 46) and fathers (n = 43) of children with autism spectrum disorder. Coping was hypothesized to mediate the relationship between optimism and depressive symptoms. The results revealed that mothers reported greater depressive symptoms and greater use of positive and support coping than fathers; however, both mothers and fathers reported similar levels of optimism and use of avoidant coping. In addition, positive and avoidant coping strategies mediated the association between optimism and depressive symptoms for both mothers and fathers. Clinical implications for this study include interventions for improving optimistic outlooks as well as interventions that improve parents’ coping skills and therefore reduce negative outcomes.

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