Including Fathers in Social Communication Interventions
June 01, 2023
Fathers are a primary communication and play partner for children. They play and talk with children in different ways than mothers do, providing important support for social communication and play development. Despite this critical role in child development, fathers are underrepresented in both autism communication intervention and research. Fathers have described feeling like the “odd man out” of therapies and schooling for their children with autism. By not making efforts to include them in intervention, we may be missing out on the potential benefits of father-child social communication models.
Father-Child Language: Compared to mother-child language, fathers tend to use language with children that is more direct and complex. For both non-autistic and autistic children, this high-quality input can support language development. Specifically, fathers’ use of responsive language, or language that matches their child’s focus of attention, is linked to stronger child language skills.
In addition, fathers’ direct communication may help improve their children’s social awareness. For instance, rather than ignoring errors in communication, fathers tend to use these opportunities to provide feedback to their child through repetition, modeling the correct response, and sometimes requesting clarification. For autistic children, fathers’ direct feedback may support language development and encourage children to clarify their messages, thus increasing their awareness of the impact of their communication on others.
Father-Child Play: Play is one of the most important tasks of child development, requiring the integration of cognitive, social, and emotional skills. Parents have an integral role in the development of their child’s play skills. For both non-autistic and autistic children, early symbolic play is a predictor of later language development. For many young children, fathers are the primary play partner, and play with fathers is different from play with mothers. Whereas mother-child play tends to be more didactic, teaching children through play, father-child play tends to be more physical, or rough-and-tumble, and also very engaging.
Fathers may not realize that their usual ways of playing can be beneficial for their child’s social and language skills. Lifting the child in the air, for example, and pairing the action with words that match the child’s focus of attention (e.g., “You’re going up in the sky!”, can be effective ways of targeting both joint attention and communication. In addition, high-quality physical play with fathers can provide important sensory input that may help children to regulate their emotions. Importantly, when autistic children engage in play with fathers in ways that match their focus of attention, their social communication skills are enhanced. Thus, involving fathers in play-based intervention to use these supportive strategies is an underutilized, but important way to improve social communication outcomes for autistic children.
Current Challenges to Involving Fathers in Autism Intervention: Although there are numerous benefits of engaging fathers in intervention, there are also several challenges to involving fathers effectively. One challenge is scheduling. Families of autistic children are busy. In many two-parent families, fathers of autistic children tend to work more hours outside the home than mothers. This limits access to therapies that are typically delivered during work and school hours. Moreover, many autistic children receive multiple therapies, limiting their availability to participate in additional interventions with their fathers. Using online communication coaching can enable more fathers and children to access and participate in interventions. Beyond scheduling limitations, another challenge to father involvement is that current interventions may not reflect father-child interaction styles. Finally, current interventions may not include father-friendly approaches in parent training. Given these challenges, there are several ways interventionists can make communication intervention therapy more amenable for fathers and potentially effective for children.
Read about Dr. Flippin and Dr. Moore’s OAR-funded research study in this month’s Research Preview.
Incorporate Father-Child Play Styles: Incorporating activities that reflect father-child interaction styles, including more physical or “rough-and-tumble” play as well as generally more active sessions with fathers is a great first step in making interventions more father-friendly and effective and fun for children.
Include the Whole Family in Intervention: Research shows that fathers prefer intervention formats that involve the entire family and include activities that fathers can do with their children. Thus, adapting the context of intervention sessions to be more active and physical, with greater family involvement, may make early intervention sessions more appealing to fathers of autistic children.
Provide Parent Coaching Information in More Father-Friendly Ways: When working with fathers, it may be beneficial to take into consideration how parents learn new information. For example, as learners, women may prefer receiving support and feedback from instructors and working with others in a cooperative and collaborative environment. Women generally prefer to receive explanations and directions and delay decisions until all the available information is gathered. This female style of learning and training is reflected throughout our collaborative model of early intervention and likely has resulted both from a traditional focus on mothers and from early intervention being a predominantly female field.
In contrast, male learners may prefer receiving feedback from peers, such as other fathers of autistic children, rather than from an instructor. Men also tend to prefer working independently. Finally, as opposed to watching and waiting until all the information is gathered, men are often more comfortable jumping in to manipulate materials and problem solve. When working with fathers, clinicians can incorporate more male-friendly teaching and learning strategies such as using video modeling or photos of target strategies and task-oriented teaching strategies.
Communicate with All Parents and Caregivers: Finally, interventionists can be mindful of including fathers in all home-therapist communication. Fathers may not feel like a full member of their child’s educational therapeutic team if their participation is limited to individualized educational plan and individualized family service plan meetings. Even if fathers are not the primary manager of their child’s therapies, interventionists can share regular updates with fathers and solicit their perspectives on goals, progress, and strategies. Supporting fathers in being partners in their child’s intervention is a key component of truly “family-centered” intervention.
In summary, fathers of children with autism are currently underrepresented in both early intervention and research. However, fathers have unique interaction styles that can make important contributions to the language and play development of children with autism. Involving fathers effectively may lead to improved outcomes in child social communication skills and have benefits across the family.
Michelle Flippin, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston. Dr. Flippin’s research examines the development of social communication skills in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. She is particularly interested in understanding and enhancing the role of fathers to optimize social communication skills for autistic children. She currently serves as an editorial board member of the American Journal of Speech Language Pathology. Prior to her academic career, Dr. Flippin worked as a speech-language pathologist in early intervention.
Adam Moore, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of special education graduate programs at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island. His research focuses on inclusive education, family-centered partnerships in special education, the experiences of college students with disabilities, and social justice in education. As a national leader in the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), Dr. Moore has worked to support teacher educators in small special education programs for the last five years. Spanning over 18 years in the field, his area of expertise includes special education teacher preparation program design, accreditation, and program improvement.