Interpretative phenomenological analysis of the experiences of autism and perceptions of parenting in parents with a child with autism
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Background: Research has highlighted that parenting a child with autism can be challenging and stressful. However, many parents successfully cope with the challenges posed by autism. A systematic review investigated parental psychological predictors of positive adjustment and coping in parents with a child with autism. Although a range of potential predictor variables were examined, including social support, coping styles and religious beliefs, the results of the review were inconclusive due to the conceptual overlap of predictor variables, and inconsistent use of outcome indicators of positive adjustment. However, parental perceptions of their situation and themselves as parents were represented across a number of variables, and were thought to be of relevance in understanding processes of adjustment. Therefore, qualitative research was undertaken to explore this further. Method: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with eight parents of children with autism on their experiences of being a parent, and their perceptions of influences on their sense of self. The data were analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Results: The following five super-ordinate themes emerged from the study: ‘experiencing autism as hard to know’, ‘experiencing autism as all-consuming and extreme’, ‘diagnosis giving understanding and confidence’, ‘parenting in the eyes of others’, and ‘dilemma of acceptance’. The meaning of these themes for parents and how they related to their sense of self and belief in their ability was discussed. For example, the ambiguity and difficulty in understanding autism, and the overwhelming nature of the condition related to feelings of self-doubt in parents. On the other hand, confidence increased when the diagnosis was identified, and when parenting skills and the child’s progress were recognised by others. Discussion: This research has provided a richer understanding of self-perceptions of parenting and the impact of these experiences on a parent’s sense of self. It has contributed to a broader literature on positive adjustment in families with a child with autism. This understanding will be useful to those seeking to engage and support families with a child with autism, and assist parents with coping and adjustment.