Mental Health and Parent-Child Relationships Among Parents of Transitional Age Youth with Autism



O'Leary, Samantha

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University of Guelph


The aim of this thesis is to explore the lived experiences of parents of autistic transitionally aged youth (16-24), with regard to their mental health and wellbeing, parent-child relationships, and co-parenting relationships. A prominent gap in the literature exists surrounding autistic youth of this age group, let alone their parents. With a focus on parents who live in Ontario, Canada, this study uses open-ended surveys (n = 19) and follow up interviews (n = 9) to explore the mental health and relational dynamics between parents and their autistic transitionally aged youth as well as their co-parent/co-caregiver, both prior to- and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Theoretically informed by family systems and symbolic interactionism, thematic and interpretative phenomenological analyses are used to generate themes across participant data. Thematic analysis of the survey responses suggests three themes of: “I have good times and bad”: The importance of external factors; Parenting variability: Ongoing learning and an uncertain future; and, The co-parenting/co-caregiving divide: Conflict vs. engagement. Using a smaller subset of the study sample, interpretative phenomenological analysis is used to provide a more in-depth exploration of parenting experiences. Four themes are evident from the interviews: When the internal becomes external; Systemic (dys)functioning; Parenting appraisals: Internal reflections and external judgement; and, Strengths and resources. Though not addressing a research question per se, an important finding reflects the overarching impact of COVID-19, suggesting that COVID is “the challenge of a lifetime”, but not for everyone. This study reveals the complex and varied experiences of parents, reflecting strengths and challenges at multi-systemic levels. Policy and practice implications indicate the need for additional supports and resources to parents and their transitionally aged youth with autism. The significance of this study is that it is one of the first to explore parenting and co-parenting experiences of transitionally aged youth with autism in Ontario, Canada, and how the global COVID-19 pandemic may have affected parents’ perceptions of their mental health and family relationships.



Autism, Transitional Age Youth, Parenting, Co-parenting, Mental Health