Vicarious futurity : parents' perspectives on locating strength in adolescents with autism : this thesis is presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Health Psychology at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Research into Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has largely taken place within the biomedical
model of illness and disease. It has focussed on young children, based on the understanding that
early intervention provides the most positive outcomes for social, cognitive, and communication
development. However, this has tended to overlook the need for research throughout the life
span, including adolescence and adulthood, where very poor outcomes develop.
This study provides a space for parents to identify the strengths of adolescents with ASD and
challenges the assumptions that the lived experience of ASD is associated mostly with
dysfunctional family life. By identifying strengths in adolescents with ASD, parents engaged
with conceptions of how these strengths might generate a positive perspective on the future for
their adolescent child. Ten parents were asked to take or collect five photographs each of what
they perceived as strengths that their adolescent displayed. A semi-structured interview was then
carried out to explore the images. Analysis of the interviews was guided by a hermeneutic
phenomenological epistemology where the researcher attempts to make sense of the participant’s
experience. The data was analysed by latent thematic analysis that is theorised as an
examination of the underlying ideas, assumptions and conceptualisations of the semantic content
of the data.
The research found that the identified strengths of adolescents with ASD were those valued in
functional and cultural terms by the family and supported daily family functioning in the home,
at school, and other mainstream systems. Furthermore, parents identified it was ASD itself that
constituted the inherent strength for the adolescent and promoting suitable attributes of the
disorder was beneficial for family life. The strengths of adolescents with ASD reinforced the
parent’s belief in a more positive future as their adolescent grows into adulthood.
The principal implication of this research is that the professional systems supporting
adolescents with ASD would benefit from shifting their conventional understanding of ASD and
negative family experiences. By doing so, these systems could facilitate more positive attitudes
towards ASD and harness these attitudes towards better support for parental well-being.