Date of Award

Spring 8-31-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Stefanie Mollborn

Second Advisor

Eric Moody

Third Advisor

Jason Boardman

Fourth Advisor

Amanda Carrico

Fifth Advisor

Amanda Stevenson

Abstract

This mixed-methods dissertation explores how having a child with a disability, and autism specifically, is associated with the health of the family system, and in turn, how the health of the family system is associated with the health of the child with a disability. Study I uses qualitative data (interviews, focus groups, and observations with families in two communities) to explore how having a child with a disability shapes family health behaviors and lifestyles. Findings capture a process through which health lifestyles develop in families with a child with a disability, which includes three steps: (1) parents become more conscious of the importance of health, which (2) leads to changes in parent identity, and (3) is ultimately translated into primarily positive changes to family health behaviors. Study II uses data from the National Survey of Children’s Health (2011/2012) to examine how stress in the family (as measured by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)) affects the health and resiliency of children with autism. Findings indicate that children with autism experience significantly more ACEs than their peers, which negatively affects their physical and mental health, but not their resiliency. Study III uses original data collected through an online survey instrument distributed to parents of children with autism to explore how a child’s timing of autism diagnosis and ACE trajectory affect both child and family well-being. It also explores how an expanded construction of resiliency, including both internal and external characteristics, is associated with well-being in this population. Findings indicate that children in the highest ACE trajectory group have the poorest well-being, that the child’s age of diagnosis is negatively associated with child well-being, and positively associated with their experience of ACEs and their parent’s and family’s health, and that overall and internal resiliency characteristics matter more than external resiliency characteristics for this population in relation to well-being. Taken together, findings from these studies provide evidence that the experience of disability can affect individuals and families in both positive and negative ways. They further demonstrate that children with certain disabilities, such as autism, are exposed to more stressors, and cope differently with those stressors, compared to their peers.

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