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We assessed the role of religion in the coping of families of children with autism. Forty-five parents completed the Brief RCOPE; identified stressors of autism; and completed measures of psychological adjustment (depression and anxiety), stress-related growth, and religious outcome. A subsample (n = 21) of parents was interviewed about their use of religious coping. Religious coping accounted for unique variance in measures of adjustment. Positive religious coping was associated with better religious outcome (e.g., changes in closeness to God/church and spiritual growth) and greater stress-related growth, whereas negative religious coping was associated with greater depressive affect and lower religious outcome. Interviews identified other ways that religion affected the coping process of these families beyond those already established in existing measures. These results will be useful to professionals working with families of children with autism and in designing interventions to meet the needs of parents for whom religion plays an important role.
Autism, first identified by Leo Kanner (1943), is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by qualitative impairments in reciprocal social interaction and communication and by restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, or activity (American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [4th ed.; DSM-IV], 1994). The intellectual functioning of nearly 75% of autistic children falls in the mentally retarded range (Frith, 1989). In most studies, the incidence of autism appears to be around 4 to 10 autistic children in every 10,000 births (Happe, 1994).
The child with autism typically requires vast amounts of parental time and energy. This drain of resources can affect the marital relationship and the functioning of individual family members (Rodrigue, Morgan, & Geffken, 1990). How well family members adjust to having a child with autism in their home may depend on the ways they cope with the stress engendered by raising such a child. Research suggests that the effectiveness of coping depends on the particular coping strategies used by the parents, the resources available within the family, and the availability of social support (Boyce, Behl, Mortensen, & Akers, 1991; Bristol, 1979, 1984). Another potentially important resource is religion. A growing number of studies have indicated that religion offers a variety of methods of coping that can help people during stressful times (see Pargament, 1997, for a review). However, those who have studied families of children with disabilities, including families of children with autism, have largely neglected the role of religion as a coping resource. The purpose of the current study is to understand better the roles that religion plays in the coping process of families with a child with autism.
Stressors Experienced by Families with Children with Autism
However, not all family members appraise the stressors of raising a child with special needs as entirely detrimental. Studies indicate that many parents and siblings come to perceive their lives with a disabled relative as mutually beneficial (e.g., Simons, 1987). Koegel, Schreibman, Johnson, O'Neill, & Burke (1983) studied various aspects of parental functioning in 49 mothers and fathers of children with autism. The researchers did not find any differences in stress levels and psychological functioning between these families and well-functioning control families. Some marriages may be strengthened in part through cooperation and a joint sense of purpose of parenting a child with a handicap (e.g., Akerley, 1984; Kazak & Marvin, 1984).
Coping in Families of Children with Autism
Social support in the form of parental training programs has been shown to help parents teach their autistic children functional skills and appropriate behavior (Bondy & Frost, 1994; Harris & Handleman, 1994; Lovaas, 1981; Marcus & Schopler, 1989; Talpins & Kabot, 1996). Support from family and friends also plays an important role (Randall & Parker, 1999). Studies have found that mothers who report low stress also report greater perceived support from spouse, immediate and extended family, friends, and other parents of children with disabilities (Bristol, 1979; Bristol, 1987; Bristol & Schopler, 1983).
Religion as a Coping Resource in Families of
Children with Autism
In addition, Pargament (1997) has identified other forms of religious coping, such as benevolent religious appraisals, seeking support from clergy or church members, seeking spiritual support, discontent with congregation and God, negative religious refraining, and expressing interpersonal religious discontent.
Some forms of religious coping, such as perceiving illness as the will of God or as an opportunity for spiritual growth (Jenkins & Pargament, 1988), use of collaborative religious coping (Pargament et al, 1990), and seeking spiritual support (Wright, Pratt, & Schmall, 1985), are tied to better outcomes (e.g., higher self-reported self-esteem, better psychological adjustment) for the individual. On the other hand, certain forms of religious coping, such as expressions of religious discontent with congregation and God, are associated with poorer outcomes (e.g., poor mental health status, poor resolution of the negative event; Pargament, 1997).
Religious Coping and Families with Children with Disabilities
A few recent studies reported data from qualitative interviews that explored
the role of religion in parenting children with special needs. Overall, the
results suggest that religion can serve as a source of support for these families
(Bennett, Deluca, & Allen, 1995). Religion reportedly helped families accept
their difficulties as a gift from God (Skinner, Bailey, Correa, & Rodriguez,
1999), as part of God's plan (Bristol, 1984), and as an opportunity for families
to become closer and attain higher spiritual levels (Skinner et al.). In some
cases, religion seemed to offer meaning to the misfortune and suffering for
these parents (Weisner, Beizer, & Stolze, 1991) and gave them hope, strength,
and patience (Barsch, 1968).
There are three major limitations to the studies that have examined the role
of religious coping in families of children with special needs. First, most
of them have focused their attention on the positive side of religion and have
neglected to study its negative aspects (except for studies by Rogers-Dulan,
1998, & Haworth et al., 1996). Even when some parents responded to questions
by saying that religion was not a source of support for them (e.g., Bennett
et al., 1995), their experience (which may have been negative) was not explored
further. Second, many studies relied mainly on interviews and hence did not
subject their data to empirical scrutiny. As a result, we do not know whether
the use of religious coping (positive or negative) is associated with better
or poorer outcomes for caretakers of these children. Finally, many studies
have measured religiousness using a framework that lacks specificity--focusing
only on global organizational practices or spiritual beliefs. They have failed
to consider the diverse, specific ways in which religion is involved in coping
with life's challenges.
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