Pathways for responding to conflict and high risk behaviours in families: A feasibility study based on families living with a child/young person with autism

Chief Investigator: Professor Cathy Humphreys
Social Work, University of Melbourne

Family violence and abuse are critical issues for individuals and families living with disability, significantly impacting their safety, security and quality of life. While evidence of elevated levels of violence experienced by women with a disability, much less is known about experiences of violence for families living with a child or young person with a disability. This dearth of research is surprising given the known risk factors and vulnerabilities for families living with a disability, including elevated familial conflict, stress and mental health issues (Dabrowska & Pisula, 2010; Hayes & Watson, 2013).

This is particularly relevant to the growing population of families living with a child/young person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who have been shown to report higher levels of stress, depression and interfamilial conflict than parents of children with other developmental disabilities (Giallo et al., 2013; Silva & Schalock, 2012). Other distinctions have been observed in parents/caregivers of ASD children, such as social isolation and stigma, higher rates of parental divorce/separation, and other financial and emotional stressors, which may make pathways to support more difficult.

Small scale studies suggest that children with ASD report higher incidences of adverse childhood experiences, including domestic violence, and may be particularly vulnerable to abuse and violence (Osborne et al., 2008; McDonnell et al., 2018). In addition, children with disabilities are almost three times more likely to experience domestic violence in the home than other community samples (Kerns & Lee, 2015; Hartley et al. 2010).Parents of autistic children report greater ostracism from their immediate family and their community, which may place further strain on family relationships. In addition, parents commonly report considerable misconceptions and lack of knowledge about ASD from members of the community, which may further stigmatise families, and isolate them from systems of support.

The absence of formal and informal support has been highlighted as a potential mediating factor in overall well-being for families living with a child/young person with autism (Ekas et al. 2010; Dunn et al. 2001; Bromley et al. 2004).What has emerged from the lieterature is that there are unique factors surrounding the parenting of a child with ASD which may significantly impact family functioning and their ability to engage in regular family-coping strategies.

This study seeks to better understand the intersections between increased stress, familial conflict, high risk behaviours, and absence of social support for families living with a child/young person with ASD. The focus areas of investigation will include the lived experiences communicated by families living with a child/young person with ASD. Feedback will also be collected from workers within the disability/ family violence sector about their perspectives on approaches to responding to families.

Specifically, this research aims to investigate:

  • Prevalence of mental health problems, stress, and anxiety in ASD families
  • Prevalence of conflict, high-risk behaviours and family violence in ASD families;
  • Key sources of stress, anxiety, and conflict in ASD families;
  • Complexities in relation to familial/couple functioning and conflict in ASD families;
  • Social support, including support from a partner, in ASD families;
  • Service support and approaches to responding to families (across pre-diagnoses, diagnosis and beyond).