Coming back to education after a lifetime of working and raising 3 now adult children, I have been both challenged and enormously satisfied with my learning. A special interest in the day to day aspects of living with autism has led to my thesis topic. I found it to be a very absorbing subject and in the future hope to work in the area of autism support.
Despite their importance to rearing a child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), fathers are often overlooked in research. Fathers reported similar reactions to their child’s diagnosis and problems as mothers, however the sources of stress can be different. In order to explore experiences of those who may not be connected to services, the current study used Reddit.com which is an anonymous forum. A reflexive thematic analysis on 30 posts was carried out. Results were largely as expected from prior research. Themes of negative emotions, positive emotions and obstacles to progress were seen. Online approaches to finding help included seeking support and seeking resources. Many children involved were not diagnosed. Unexpected themes included the joy in the father / child relationship. Children discussed in the data were younger than expected. Male to female ratio was higher than expected. Results supported the need for father-only interventions and father-to-father communication and mentoring.
Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder defined by social communication deficits, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviours (Hodges et al., 2020). Fathers have an important part to play in raising children, with paternal involvement improving children’s mental health, academic, social and cognitive outcomes (Cabrera et al., 2000). Parents typically become involved in the navigation of services for their children, and family involvement is critical to positive outcomes of treatment and therapies (Azeem et al., 2016).The often near-constant struggle for resources and treatment for their children is a major source of stress for parents (Davis & Carter, 2008).
Current research on ASD families primarily reflects experiences and concerns of mothers rather than fathers. A 2015 study included 425 mothers but only 160 fathers (DePape & Lindsay, 2015). Fathers are less likely than mothers to admit to struggling, or having emotional difficulties. “The mothers cry to someone, the fathers cry alone” (McGrath & Chesler, 2004 as cited in Cheuk & Lashewicz, 2015). Many fathers feel that there is not enough social support for them (Rudelli et al., 2021)
The research question is: What are the lived experiences of the fathers of children with autism who seek support online through Reddit?
There were a total of 30 posts, with an average post length of 237. Reflexive thematic analysis means that the researchers views and values are taken into account and form part of the data. The work of Braun and Clark (2021) was used as a basis for this research.
The fathers concerned show “tender involvement along with fierce protectiveness” (Lashewicz et al. 2016).. They clearly love their children, while fighting for help for them.
The data supports prior findings. While sources of stress appear to remain the same, for fathers there are additional stresses such as maintaining their own mental health, maintaining financial provision, and possible conflict between being a carer and more traditional masculine roles such as being the breadwinner.
The theme seen of the positive aspects of the father child relationship is rarely seen in previous research. This data set showed a female to male ratio of 1:6 instead of the expected 1:2. Surprising aspects of the data included the omission of shutdowns (as opposed to meltdowns), the young ages of the children, and the fact that there was no mention of stigma associated with having an ASD child.
This form of data collection has a strong ethical element, as there is no contact with the participants. Anonymity can allow for truthful posting. However it is impossible to uncover demographic information.
This research has found that the fathers of children with ASD are struggling practically, emotionally and financially, while balancing the needs of their ASD child, their other children, their spouses and themselves. Mental health supports for parents of children with ASD should perhaps have “Father only” services with Father-to-Father mentoring and communication.
The Forgotten Man should be remembered in his own right, and for the sake of his children.