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Understanding Autism: How Family Therapists Can Support Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

The number of children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. Parents of children with autism experience a variety of chronic and acute stressors that can erode marital satisfaction and family functioning. Family therapists are well-suited to help parents stay connected to each other as they create a “new normal.” However, family therapists need updated information about autism, and they need to understand how family therapy can help parents of children with autism. Because having a child with autism affects multiple domains of family life, this paper explores how family therapists can utilize an integrative approach with parents, enabling them to flexibly work with the domains of action, meaning, and emotion.

This paper provides a general overview for family therapists, and it is divided into four sections. The first section provides basic information about autism. The second section identifies some challenges that parents may face on their way to getting a diagnosis for their child. The third section details the elements of a comprehensive treatment plan for the family and the child with autism. The fourth section examines how family therapists can work with action, meaning, and emotion in order to help parents stay connected with each other and with their child. Although this paper will remain focused on the parental subsystem, there are significant ways that other subsystems (like the sibling subsystem) as well as the extended family system are affected by a child’s autism diagnosis, and family therapy and/or individual therapy may be indicated. Comments about other family members are beyond the scope of this paper.


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