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Systemic Interventions for Families of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Posted By Katy Oberle, Thursday, May 11, 2017

Approximately 1 in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although myriad diagnostic- and treatment-related resources are available for these children, few resources exist to help their families accept and adjust to the diagnosis, deal with various treatment challenges, and cope with the impact of ASD on the family.


Parent training can be very beneficial in decreasing problem behaviors in children with ASD. However, because it generally does not address family functioning, additional family-based work may be needed and can be done simultaneously with other ASD interventions. Sometimes family issues need to be addressed before parent training so that parents can have the emotional resources necessary to successfully implement behavioral interventions.


In my position at a community-based, hospital-run multidisciplinary autism and child development center, I assess children at-risk for ASD and other developmental disabilities, and I provide psychotherapy services for their families. Most parents are relieved to learn about the availability of family-based support since they often experience feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. This support offers a space to discuss family issues that are often pushed to the back burner and helps mitigate some of the stress of caring for children with ASD.


While engaged with a family, I collaborate with the other providers involved in the patient’s care. Whenever possible, I co-facilitate family sessions with the patient’s individual therapist from our autism center next door. Oftentimes this clinician has a better sense than I do of the patient’s behavioral and emotional patterns and can, when needed, help deescalate the patient during a session. Through our collaboration, the therapist gathers valuable information about family interactions to inform his/her own work with the patient, and the patient benefits from having an ally in the room.


This was the case for Derrick, a teenager with ADHD and ASD. Derrick struggled with emotional regulation, anger, and aggression, primarily at home. Derrick’s individual therapist was often present in my family sessions. As session progressed with Derrick, his adoptive parents, and his younger brother, the parents realized that as co-parenting was improving, their martial relationship was decompensating.  It became important to balance marital and co-parenting roles so the couple could effectively address Derrick’s behaviors while taking good care of their marriage. During couples sessions, Derrick’s parents processed their romantic relationship and families of origin. They became more mindful of how their patterns of interaction impacted each other and how they were affecting the children. In subsequent couple and family sessions I coached parents to engage in mindful listening and communication with each other and with their sons.


It was determined that trauma was a factor at play in the palpable tension and angry exchanges in the relationship between Derrick and his father, Tom; both had experienced abuse in their childhoods. During one session, Derrick explained that when he disclosed to Tom his suicidal feelings the day before, Tom responded in a dismissive manner which angered Derrick to the point of becoming physical with Tom. When I asked Derrick more about this, Derrick confirmed that Tom’s response triggered a memory from Derrick’s time in foster care in which he had felt vulnerable and dismissed. His aggression towards Tom, although unhealthy, was self-protective.


With my coaching, Tom informed Derrick that when he heard Derrick’s suicidal talk, a memory from his own traumatic past was triggered, and he just wanted to “shut it down.” I praised the two for their honesty and resilience, and I imparted to them that being trauma survivors has the potential to deepen their bond. Since then, Tom has been more self-aware and has been working on responding mindfully rather than reacting, especially regarding Derrick. Derrick continues to struggle with emotional regulation, but the foundation for a more positive relationship with his family has been laid.


Family-based work adds important value to any team that participates in the diagnosis or treatment of children with ASD or other developmental disabilities. Child behavior in ASD and family functioning are interconnected, and treating them together can have a synergistic effect. As Doherty et al (1994) states, “all therapeutic issues involve complex systems dynamics at biological, psychological, interpersonal, institutional, and community levels” (p. 34). When we as providers appreciate this phenomenon and create interventions designed to address various systemic dynamics in the lives of our patients, we are truly living into our value of integrated care. 


References/ Recommended reading:

Bearss, K., Burrell, T.L., Stewart, L., & Scahill, L. (2015). Parent training in autism spectrum disorder: What’s in a name? Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 18, 170-182.

Cridland, E.K., Jones, S.C., Magee, C.A., & Caputi, P. (2014). Family-focused autism spectrum disorder research: A review of the utility of family systems approaches. Autism, 18(3), 213-222.

Ramisch, J. (2012). Marriage and family therapists working with couples who have children with autism. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(2), 306-316.

Neely, J, Amatea, E.S., Echevarria-Doan, S., & Tannen, T. (2011). Working with families living with autism: potential contributions of marriage and family therapists. Journal of Marital and Family Thearpy, 38, 1, 211-226.

Patterson, S.Y., Smith, V., & Mirenda, P. (2011). A systematic review of training programs for parents of children with autism spectrum disorders: Single subject contributions. Autism, 16(5), 498-522.

Hock, R.M., Timm, T.M., & Ramisch, J.L. (2012). Parenting children with autism spectrum disorder: a crucible for couple relationships. Child and Family Social Work, 17, 406-415.

Garcia-Lopez, C., Sarria, E., Pozo, P., & Recio, P. (2016). Supportive dyadic coping and psychological adaptation in couples parenting children with autism spectrum disorder: the role of relationship satisfaction. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(11), 3434-3447

Hayes, S. A. & Watson, S. L. (2013). The impact of parenting stress: a meta-analysis of studies comparing the experience of parenting stress in parents of children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(3), 629-642.

Gau, S. S., Chou, M. C., Chiang, H. L., Lee, J. C., Wong. C. C., Chou, W. J. et al (2012). Parental adjustment, marital relationship, and family function in families of children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 253-270. 



Katy Oberle, MS, IMFT is a family therapist at the Child Development Center (CDC) of Nationwide Children's Hospital. She conducts diagnostic assessments for children and teens with developmental and behavioral health concerns, and she provides systemically-focused therapy services to CDC clients and their families. She also serves as the treasurer of the Ohio Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Her clinical interests include couple relationship enhancement for parents of children with special needs, and systemically-geared mindfulness-based interventions delivered in the context of various healthcare settings. 

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