Autism & the Parent-Child Relationship

The Guiding Relationship Takes Two

The parent-infant guiding relationship is akin to the interplay between different components of a guided rocket. The success of parent efforts at promoting the growth of their infants mental and self development is dependent on the child’s providing the primary ‘thrust’ for growth, while parents primarily serve as the ‘guidance system,’ directing that energy in a productive direction.

Just as infant growth-seeking is dependent on the availability of adult guides, the success of parents’ growth-promoting is dependent on their infants providing them with the variety and frequency of growth-seeking actions that provide the impetus for their guidance.

Related: The Biggest Loss for ASD Infants & Parents

The majority of parent growth-promoting efforts do not involve initiating a new activity or directing their infants. Rather, parents of growth-seeking infants are offered many opportunities to be productively responsive.

Parents respond to their infant’s growth-seeking by acting and communicating in ways that elaborate and ‘scaffold’ the infants’ efforts, for example, providing affordances so that the infant’s goals are attainable and not dangerous.

When parents do act as initiators, they continue to function in a responsive manner, carefully assessing their child’s readiness and attempting to provide their infants with opportunities to experience their world in a ‘one-step-ahead’ manner that while not exactly fitting the infant’s prior understanding or perspective, is only one small step ahead of or varying from the infants’ prior understanding or level of competence.

When infants initially fail to make sense of or master a new challenge, as is frequently the case, parental guides provide ’soft landings’, modifying tasks to make them more attainable and encourage their infants to try again, leading to eventual successes. This results in positive experiences that build infant’s resilience, as well as their trust in the relationship.

Autism Changes the Dynamic

When infants who go on to be diagnosed with ASD do not contribute sufficient energy to their relationship, parents, no matter how motivated or proficient are unable to guide and their relationship cannot develop in a normal manner.

Parents are not able to function in a responsive, elaborative manner, because they are presented with nothing productive to respond to. Parents are not provided with the types of child actions they can support and elaborate.

Additionally, parents of future ASD infants are cut off from obtaining any type of regulatory feedback that parents of typically developing infants rely upon to adjust their actions to be optimal for their child. Similarly, there is no way for parents to determine what would be ‘one step ahead’ for their child.

While parents of typically developing infants are able to focus their energy to act as mental ‘guides’, looking for opportunities to expand and extend their child’s competence, parents of ASD infants must struggle just to obtain their child’s attention and maintain their engagement.

RDI programs focus on helping parents rebuild this crucial Guiding Relationship. Learn more here. 

autism parent-child relationship


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