Play is key to a child's development. Often healthcare professionals analyse parent-child play to decide what support a family needs. This project aims to understand if current assessments are suitable for autistic parents who might respond and interact differently to non-autistic parents.

Early interactions help to shape the child’s ongoing social, communication, learning and physical skills. It also helps the parent and child to bond. How parents play with their children is often assessed by community care professionals. Based on these observations they may make decisions about child welfare and family support.

What is the need for the project

When professionals observe an autistic parent and child playing they may not see their natural behaviour - for example an unfamiliar environment will increase stress levels of parents. Even at home, some parents say their fear of ‘getting it wrong’ in these assessments leads them to act differently. Parents are measured against neurotypical norms and professionals don't have autism training, so the process is not setup for a parent with different ways of communicating. It could lead to families getting the wrong level of support, impacting the parent, child and wider family.

What is the process?

This project will looks at current tools alongside autistic parents' experiences to understand what might need to change in the assessment process. They will collect a selection of information for a report:

  • a review of existing measures, tools and frameworks for analyzing parent-child interaction
  • a detailed examination of one measure - the Maternal Behaviour Rating Scale
  • a survey of researchers who use interaction-based coding schemes to capture information about toys and settings
  • interviews with practitioners who use play observation e.g. health visitors, social workers
  • home visits with 3-5 families to observe, interview and take photos
  • interview with 12 autistic parents.

How will this improve lives?

The research will form a report with recommended changes to the way autistic parents parenting skills should be assessed. By ensuring that autistic parents are correctly assessed, we can make sure they get the best possible support early on. There is less likelihood of a child being taken away from a family or for families to split up due to miscommunications, inaccurate assessments or lack of support. This will mean that the child has the best start in life, and the parent and wider family are healthy, happy and supported.

This is a Charles Sharland Autistic Grant Scheme Award, supported by businessman and autism philanthropist Charles Sharland.