4.7 The family context
Whether or not children with autism behave atypically from the moment they are born, the effects of their atypical way of relating to others must inevitably be felt by parents and others in the family:
Jane would allow herself to be cuddled, but only if I didn't look at her. She always resisted sitting on my lap unless she was facing away. And I could go to her with my arms out, just as I had a million times with my boys, but she would never reach out to me in return … One day I found my husband … smiling at her, the tears rolling down his face, begging her to smile back.
(From Randall and Parker, 1999, p. 107)
This poignant account highlights what seems almost self-evident: that caring for a child with an autistic spectrum disorder will cause perplexity and, at times, distress. As the extract also illustrates, the unusual behaviour of the child may evoke equally unusual behaviour in the parent, which may in turn affect the child. This ‘negative spiral’, extended over a long period, may well account for a finding by Piven et al. (1994) that some parents of children with autism may seem to subtly emulate the symptoms of their child, for instance appearing rather aloof. On the other hand, this finding is also consistent with genetic evidence, to be discussed in the next section, for attenuated forms of autism in relatives of affected individuals.
Effects of ASDs on families have been extensively documented. For instance, DeMyer (1979) described parents who expressed disappointment, depression and inadequacy, with consequent effects on their marital relationships. Randall and Parker (1999) suggested that siblings of a child with autism may feel overlooked, frustrated or embarrassed, and may even feel responsible for the autistic difficulties. All of these findings underline the importance of providing support for the family of autistic people wherever necessary.