An Exploratory Study of Autism Traits and Parenting

  • Cheryl DissanayakeEmail author
  • Amanda Richdale
  • Natasha Kolivas
  • Lindsay Pamment


The study examined the association between autism traits and parenting when raising a typically developing (TD) child, and differences in parenting needs between parents with high and low traits. Fifty-eight parents with a blood relative with Autism (who happened to be an offspring with ASD in all cases) and a TD child completed the Autism Quotient, demographic and psychological information, as well as reporting on Parenting Sense of Competence, the Parent–Child Relationship, and Parenting Needs. Autism traits did not uniquely contribute to parenting self-esteem, but were associated with parenting difficulties for their TD child, and some aspects of this parent–child relationship. Parents with high autism traits reported more parenting difficulties than parents with low traits. The study identified specific aspects of parenting needing support to assist parents with high autism traits prosper in their parenting role.


Autism spectrum disorder Parent–child relationship Autism traits Parenting sense of competence Parenting difficulties Autism Quotient 



We would like to acknowledge the parents who participated in this study, and our funder, the William and Vera Houston Memorial Trust. CD and AR conceived of the study and study design.

Author Contributions

CD oversaw its execution carried out by NK and LP. NK developed the Parenting Difficulties Questionnaire (PDQ) together with CD and LP. All authors were involved in data analyses and interpretation of results. CD and AR drafted the manuscript together with NK, and all authors provided critical comment on the draft and editing of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


  1. Adamczyk-Robinette, S. L., Fletcher, A. C., & Wright, K. (2002). Understanding the authoritative parenting–early adolescent tobacco use link: The mediating role of peer tobacco use. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31(4), 311–318. Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th edn.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  3. Auyeung, B., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., & Allison, C. (2008). The autism spectrum quotient: Children’s version (AQ-Child). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1230–1240. Scholar
  4. Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): Evidence from asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism, malesand females, scientists and mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17. Scholar
  5. Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887–907.Google Scholar
  6. Belsky, J., & de Haan, M. (2011). Annual research review: Parenting and children’s brain development: The end of the beginning. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52, 409–428. Scholar
  7. Berg-Nielsen, T. S., Vikan, A., & Dahl, A. A. (2002). Parenting related to child and parental psychopathology: A descriptive review of the literature. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 7(4), 529–552. Scholar
  8. Broadbent, J., Galic, I., & Stokes, M. A. (2013). Valdation of the autism spectrum quotient adult version in an Australian Sample. Autism Research and Treatment. 2013, 1–7.
  9. Brugha, T. S., McManus, S., Bankart, J., Scott, F., Purdon, S., Smith, J., … Meltzer, H. (2011). Epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders in adults in the community in England. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68(5), 459–465. Scholar
  10. Challacombe, F., & Salkovskis, P. (2009). A preliminary investigation of the impact of maternal obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder on parenting and children. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23(7), 848–857. Scholar
  11. Chandler, F., & Dissanayake, C. (2014). An investigation of the security of caregiver attachment during middle childhood in children with high-functioning autistic disorder. Autism, 18(5), 485–492. Scholar
  12. Coleman, P. K., & Karraker, K. H. (2003). Maternal self-efficacy beliefs, competence in parenting, and toddlers’ behavior and developmental status. Infant Mental Health Journal, 24(2), 126–148. Scholar
  13. Conners, C. K., Erhardt, D., & Sparrow, E. (1999). Conners Adult ADHD Rating Scales (CAARS). MHS.Google Scholar
  14. Cox, A., Puckering, C., Pound, A., & Mills, M. (1987). The impact of maternal depression in young children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 28(6), 917–928. Scholar
  15. DeVore, E. R., & Ginsburg, K. R. (2005). The protective effects of good parenting on adolescents. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 17(4), 460–465.Google Scholar
  16. DiClemente, R. J., Crosby, R. A., & Kegler, M. (2009). Emerging theories in health promotion practice and pesearch. San Francisco: Wiley.Google Scholar
  17. Dissanayake, C., & Crossley, S. A. (1996). Proximity and sociable behaviours in autism: Evidence for attachment? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37, 149–156.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Dissanayake, C., & Sigman, M. (2000). Attachment and emotional responsiveness in children with autism. International Review of Research in Mental Retardation, 23, 239–266. Scholar
  19. Donovan, W. L., Leavitt, L. A., & Walsh, R. O. (1990). Maternal self-efficacy: Illusory control and its effect on susceptibility to learned helplessness. Child Development, 61(5), 1638–1647. Scholar
  20. Dunst, C. J., Trivette, C. M., & Deal, A. G. (1988). Enabling and empowering families: Principles and guidelines for practice. Cambridge: Brookline Books.Google Scholar
  21. Gerard, A. B. (1994). Parent-Child Relationship Inventory. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.Google Scholar
  22. Gordon, D., Burge, D., Hammen, C., Adrian, C., Jaenicke, C., & Hiroto, D. (1989). Observations of interactions of depressed women with their children. American Journal of Psychiatry, 146(1), 50–55. Scholar
  23. Henry, J., & Crawford, J. (2005). The short-form of the Depression, Anxiety, Stress Scales (DASS-21): Construct validity and normative data in a large non-clinical sample. The British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44, 227–239. Scholar
  24. Hoekstra, R. A., Bartels, M., Cath, D. C., & Boomsma, D. I. (2008). Factor structure, reliability and criterion validity of the autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): A study in Dutch population and patient groups. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(8), 1555–1566. Scholar
  25. Hollingshead, A. B. (1975). Four factor index of social status. Yale Journal of Sociology, 8, 21–51.Google Scholar
  26. Howlin, P., & Magiati, I. (2017). Autism spectrum disorder: Outcomes in adulthood. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 30(2), 69–76. Scholar
  27. Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2001). Parent–child interactions and anxiety disorders: An observational study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(12), 1411–1427. Scholar
  28. Ingersoll, B., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2011). The relationship between the broader autism phenotype, child severity, and stress and depression in parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(1), 337–344. Scholar
  29. Johnston, C., & Mash, E. J. (1989). A measure of parenting satisfaction and efficacy. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 18(2), 167–175. Scholar
  30. Juang, L. P., & Silbereisen, R. K. (2002). The relationship between adolescent academic capability beliefs, parenting and school grades. Journal of Adolescense, 25(1), 3–18. Scholar
  31. Kendziora, K. T., & O’Leary, S. G. (1993). Dysfunctional parenting as a focus for prevention and treatment of child behavior problems. Advances in Clinical Child Psychology, 15, 175–206.Google Scholar
  32. Laranjo, J., Bernier, A., & Meins, E. (2008). Associations between maternal mind-mindedness and infant attachment security: Investigating the mediating role of maternal sensitivity. Infant Behavior and Development, 31(4), 688–695.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Lau, W. Y. P., Peterson, C. C., Attwood, T., Garnett, M. S., & Kelly, A. B. (2016). Parents on the autism continuum: Links with parenting efficacy. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 26, 57–64. Scholar
  34. Liem, J. H., Cavell, E. C., & Lustig, K. (2010). The influence of authoritative parenting during adolescence on depressive symptoms in young adulthood: Examining the mediating roles of self-development and peer support. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 171(1), 73–92. Scholar
  35. Lovejoy, M. C., Graczyk, P. A., O’Hare, E., & Neuman, G. (2000). Maternal depression and parenting behavior: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 20(5), 561–592. Scholar
  36. Lovibond, P. F., & Lovibond, S. H. (1995). The structure of negative emotional states: Comparison of the depression anxiety stress scales (DASS) with the beck depression and anxiety inventories. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33(3), 335–343. Scholar
  37. Mash, E. J., & Johnston, C. (1983). Parental perceptions of child behavior problems, parenting self-esteem, and mothers’ reported stress in younger and older hyperactive and normal children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51(1), 86. Scholar
  38. McStay, R., Trembath, D., & Dissanayake, C. (2014). Maternal stress and family quality of life in response to raising a child with autism: From preschool to adolescence. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35(11), 3119–3130. Scholar
  39. Milevsky, A., Schlechter, M., Netter, S., & Keehn, D. (2007). Maternal and paternal parenting styles in adolescents: Associations with self-esteem, depression and life-satisfaction. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 16(1), 39–47. Scholar
  40. Murray, L., Kempton, C., Woolgar, M., & Hooper, R. (1993). Depressed mothers’ speech to their infants and its relation to infant gender and cognitive development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34(7), 1083–1101. Scholar
  41. Neppl, T. K., Conger, R. D., Scaramella, L. V., & Ontai, L. L. (2009). Intergenerational continuity in parenting behavior: Mediating pathways and child effects. Developmental Psychology, 45(5), 1241–1256. Scholar
  42. Parker, G. (1989). The parental bonding instrument: Psychometric properties reviewed. Psychiatric Developments, 7, 317–335.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Parker, G., Roussos, J., Hadzi-Pavlovic, D., Mitchell, P., Wilhelm, K., & Austin, M.-P. (1997). The development of a refined measure of dysfunctional parenting and assessment of its relevance in patients with affective disorders. Psychological Medicine, 27, 1193–1203.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Piko, B. F., & Balázs, M. (2012). Authoritative parenting style and adolescent smoking and drinking. Addictive Behaviors, 37(3), 353–356. Scholar
  45. Qualtrics. (2015). Qualtrics [computer program]. Provo: Qualtrics.Google Scholar
  46. Rogers, H., & Matthews, J. (2004). The Parenting Sense of Competece Scale: Investigation of the factor structure, reliability, and validity for an Australian sample. Australian Psychologist, 39(1), 88–96. Scholar
  47. Rutter, M. (1990). Commentary: Some focus and process considerations regarding effects of parental depression on children. Developmental Psychology, 26(1), 60. Scholar
  48. Sandin, S., Lichtenstein, P., Kuja-Halkola, R., Larsson, H., Hultman, C. M., & Reichenberg, A. (2014). The familial risk of autism. JAMA, 311(17), 1770–1777. Scholar
  49. Seligman, M., & Darling, B. R. (1989). Ordinary families, special children: A systems approach to childhood disability. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  50. Seltzer, M. M., Shattuck, P., Abbeduto, L., & Greenberg, J. S. (2004). Trajectory of development in adolescents and adults with autism. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 10, 234–247. Scholar
  51. Spera, C. (2005). A review of the relationship among parenting practices, parenting styles, and adolescent school achievement. Educational Psychology Review, 17(2), 125–146. Scholar
  52. Spoth, R. L., & Conroy, S. M. (1993). Survey of prevention-relevant beliefs and efforts to enhance parenting skills among rural parents. The Journal of Rural Health, 9(3), 227–239. Scholar
  53. Steinberg, L. (2001). We know some things: Parent–adolescent relationships in retrospect and prospect. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 11, 1–19. Scholar
  54. Sucksmith, E., Roth, I., & Hoekstra, R. (2011). Autistic traits below the clinical threshold: Re-examining the broader autism phenotype in the 21st century. Neuropsychology Review, 21(4), 360–389. Scholar
  55. Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. (1992). Intergenerational transmission of parenting: A review of studies in nonclinical populations. Developmental Review, 12(1), 76–99. 2297(92)90004-L.Google Scholar
  56. van Steijn, D. J., Oerlemans, A. M., de Ruiter, S. W., van Aken, M. A., Buitelaar, J. K., & Rommelse, N. N. (2013). Are parental autism spectrum disorder and/or attention-deficit/Hyperactivity disorder symptoms related to parenting styles in families with ASD (+ ADHD) affected children? European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 22(11), 671–681. Scholar
  57. Whaley, S. E., Pinto, A., & Sigman, M. (1999). Characterizing interactions between anxious mothers and their children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67(6), 826. Scholar
  58. Wilson, S., & Durbin, C. E. (2010). Effects of paternal depression on fathers’ parenting behaviors: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(2), 167–180. Scholar
  59. Woodbury-Smith, M. R., Robinson, J., Wheelwright, S., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2005). Screening adults for Asperger Syndrome using the AQ: A preliminary study of its diagnostic validity in clinical practice. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(3), 331–335. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cheryl Dissanayake
    • 1
    Email author
  • Amanda Richdale
    • 1
  • Natasha Kolivas
    • 1
  • Lindsay Pamment
    • 1
  1. 1.Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, School of Psychology & Public HealthLa Trobe UniversityMelbourneAustralia

Personalised recommendations