An exploration of mothers’ relationships with their young, non-verbal children with an autism spectrum disorder: A case study approach

Cowan, Hilary-Ann (2013) An exploration of mothers’ relationships with their young, non-verbal children with an autism spectrum disorder: A case study approach. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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There is currently considerable knowledge relating to the relationship between a mother and her child. This relationship is based upon the proposition that both mother and child are innately programmed to be sociable and the child is pre-programmed to respond to social situations and therefore elicit caregiving. Equally, adults are programmed to respond to their children. However, many parents of young children with autism have suggested that little prepares them for the limited responsiveness that many of their children exhibit.

This qualitative study, using six case studies, focused upon the reciprocal nature of the mother-child relationship in young children with autism who were also non-verbal, and sought to explore any factors which influenced the relationship experienced by the mother with her child. To date no published study has explored this relationship.

This study is based upon a naturalistic paradigm and comprised six in-depth case studies using mixed methods of data collection. Each case study includes a mother and her young child diagnosed with autism who is non-verbal. Data collection methods included a semi-structured interview, observation of mother-child interaction and the Parenting Stress Index (PSI) questionnaire which is commonly used in clinical practice. The qualitative data were coded and themes were generated. The numerical data were analysed resulting in descriptive statistics. Each case study was initially analysed separately, which was followed by cross-case analysis. The qualitative and quantitative data were integrated using a conceptually clustered matrix, which was followed by the development of an association network which displays relationships amongst the variables and has an associated narrative text describing the meaning of the connections between the variables.

Findings suggest that these mothers experienced difficulties in forming and maintaining a connection or an attachment with their children and deemed the interactions within the relationship to be very one-sided. This resulted in the mothers feeling rejected and unloved by their children and therefore they often did not reciprocate love for their children. Five of the mothers and children included in this study received autism-specific interventions and support. This resulted in an improvement in their children’s communication and interaction, together with an increase in the mothers’ understanding of autism and of their children. Conversely this resulted in an increase in the mothers’ ability to be responsive and synchronise their behaviours with their children’s, and in an increase in maternal confidence which culminated in a possible strengthening of the mother-child relationship.

Changes to the strategic and operational practice of professionals working with these dyads are proposed which include specific objectives for professionals comprising workshops, further research and undergraduate training to raise awareness and alter practice.

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