It is now estimated that one in 88 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Few disabilities are more stressful on parents than ASD. There is theoretical and empirical evidence to suggest that chronic parenting stress affects marital adjustment. The overarching goal of this project is to examine the within-family associations between the autism symptoms and behavior problems of children with ASDs and marital adjustment as these processes unfold in naturalistic contexts and across three years. The specific study aims are: 1) Compare the self-reported and observed marital adjustment of couples of children with ASDs as compared to couples who have children without disabilities. 2) Test the within-family day-to-day temporal effects of child symptoms and behavior problems on couple interactions. 3) Examine the trajectories of global self-reported and observed marital adjustment across four waves of data collection spanning three years. In total, 175 married couples who have a child with an ASD aged five to 12 years will participate in the study. Study variables will be assessed through self-reported and teacher-reported measures and direct observations across four waves of data collection spanning three years. A matched comparison group of 150 married couples of children without a disability will also participate at Time 1 to understand how the processes in families of children with ASDs differ from normative experiences. Associations between marital adjustment and child symptoms and behavior problems will be examined using both a micro-level scale (14-day daily diary at Time 1), to examine the unfolding of real time day-to-day associations in their natural and spontaneous context, and a macro-level scale (four waves of data collection spanning three years), to examine the longer-term time-order pathways between these variables. Our primary unit of analysis is the couple, with individuals (husbands and wives) nested within couples. Multivariate multilevel modeling will be used to handle the inter-dependence of spouses'data collected at multiple time points (Raudenbush &Bryk, 2002).

Public Health Relevance

This project contributes to public health by elucidating the pathways by which child stressors related to having a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) impact marital adjustment. Divorce and marital discord have considerable consequences for the psychological and physical health of both adults and children. Understanding how some couples are able to successfully adapt to a stressful family context of having a child with an ASD but others are not has significant implications for improving the psychological and physical health of both parents and the child with an ASD. Our long-term goal for this line of research is to adapt marital therapies to fit the stressful parenting context of ASDs. Findings can also apply to couples of children with other types of behavioral challenges (e.g., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or oppositional defiant disorder).

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
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Social Psychology, Personality and Interpersonal Processes Study Section (SPIP)
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Gilotty, Lisa
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University of Wisconsin Madison
Other Domestic Higher Education
United States
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Hartley, Sigan L; Mihaila, Iulia; Otalora-Fadner, Hannah S et al. (2014) Division of Labor in Families of Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Fam Relat 63:627-638
Hartley, Sigan L; Schaidle, Emily M; Burnson, Cynthia F (2013) Parental attributions for the behavior problems of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. J Dev Behav Pediatr 34:651-60