Article Abstract

The effects of early autism intervention on parents and family adaptive functioning

Authors: Annette Estes, Deanna M. Swain, Katherine E. MacDuffie


This review describes the effects of intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) on parents. Like all children, children with ASD bring both negative and positive experiences for parents and families—from increased resource needs, to higher levels of parenting-related stress, to positive personal growth for family members. It is increasingly recognized that, although children with ASD are the primary targets of early ASD intervention, ASD intervention also impacts parents. From the time emerging developmental concerns begin to be identified, through the process of obtaining a diagnosis and initiating services, parents play a central role in addressing the needs of young children with ASD, including implementing and supporting early intervention. Parents experience the impact of intervention directly, through interaction with providers within the health care and educational systems. Parents also experience indirect impacts of ASD intervention due to accelerated developmental progress of children who are benefitting from services and when children make slower progress than expected or have challenging behaviors. Parental stress and psychological well-being are legitimate targets of intervention and compelling research objectives, needing no additional justification. However, parents are also the major contributors to family adaptive functioning—the activities families employ to support positive outcomes for children with ASD (e.g., family-orchestrated child experiences, parent-child interaction, child health and safety functions; Guralnick, 1997). A parent’s ability to carry out adaptive functions is, in part, related to their levels of stress and psychological well-being. Thus, there is a transactional process in which parents are both impacted by and have an impact on ASD interventions for their child. Evaluating the effect of ASD intervention on parents is needed to develop new strategies for helping parents and children with ASD reach their full potential. This review will provide an overview of research on the impact of early ASD intervention on parents. Evidence regarding the impact of three types of intervention (i.e., early intensive behavioral intervention, parent-implemented intervention, and programs directly targeting parent stress) on parent well-being and family adaptive functioning will be reviewed. Potential moderators of the impact of ASD intervention on parents and family adaptive functioning will be discussed. We conclude that research on the impact of ASD intervention on parents of young children with ASD is a promising avenue for improving the lives of children with ASD and their families.