Between her college education, experience teaching at a preschool for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and inspiration to help others after spending time as a missionary, Jamie Easler was well positioned to pursue a master’s degree in Marriage, Family, and Human Development at BYU. She studied the effects of disabled children on family processes and researched interventions to help families navigate life with disabilities. “I definitely saw the need and the effect that having a child with a disability can have on families,” recalls Easler.
The peer-reviewed journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities recently published Easler’s master’s thesis that compared uplifts, respite care, stressors, and marriage quality in the parents of children with autism and Down syndrome. Easler collaborated with many faculty mentors in the School of Family Life and the McKay School of Education, who are co-authors on the article.
The most outstanding discovery had to do with uplifts. “Uplifts is a fancy term for the different positive experiences that you have in your day-to-day life and how you perceive those things…so it could be your relationship with your spouse or your relationship with your child,” explains Easler. The study found that parents who reported experiencing more uplifts had higher marital quality, even if they still had high levels of stress. Uplifts appeared to be even more beneficial to a parent’s well-being and marital quality than respite care. “It’s important how you perceive those things, and when parents (especially those of children with autism) could experience more uplifts they did report lower levels of stress and higher personal marital quality.”
Down Syndrome and Paternal Advantages
Comparing the two disabilities researched in this study, parents of children with Down Syndrome reported experiencing more frequent uplifts, while parents of children with ASD reported higher stressors and lower marital quality. These findings reaffirmed what other studies have discovered to be the ‘Down syndrome advantage.’ “We definitely didn’t want to lump all parents of children with these disabilities together because each family will have a different experience with their child, but these are the results that we’re seeing — that on average there is an advantage for families of children with Down syndrome,” says Easler.
The study also analyzed responses from both parents, allowing Easler and her co-authors to compare reported uplifts, respite care, stressors, and marital quality between mothers and fathers. Notably, Easler and her co-authors found what the paper calls, a ‘husband advantage,’ where 20% of the fathers of children diagnosed with autism consider their marriage distressed, compared with 25% of mothers. Likewise, while 10% of mothers with children who have Down syndrome reported having a distressed marriage, only 2% of fathers reported marital distress.
A New Perspective on Disability
While the study compared many variables, Easler and co-author Jeremy Yorgason agree that discovering the importance of uplifts for families with disabled children is the most impactful takeaway of the paper. “A lot of studies in the past have just focused on the stress of caring for a child with a disability and this paper comes in and says, ‘Hey the uplifts are important as well.’ And the uplifts were related to marital quality and levels of stress in both cases,” says Yorgason, who is a professor in the School of Family Life. Ideally, using this paper as a foundation, research would continue to discover how professionals can help parents of children with disabilities recognize uplifts more often.
“I think that it is important to understand that there are differences within the disabilities themselves and how that affects stress in marriage and the family, and also what professionals can do to help these parents and families. I hope to see a shift in research perspectives from always studying the negative to finding the positives that can help parents experience lower stress and hopefully improve their relationships,” adds Easler.
A Long Publishing Process
Easler presented her thesis and graduated in 2016, but that was only the starting line of having the research published in a peer-reviewed journal. “This paper went through so many edits. It took years!” jokes Easler. While the process was long and often tedious, she consistently turned to her faculty mentors for assistance and new perspectives. “All of my mentors were very helpful in every regard, and I’m still in contact with all of them. I’m so grateful to every single one of them, and it was such a collaborative and multidisciplinary effort.”
By studying different variables that affect family processes, family life scholars hope to discover solutions to family challenges. Yorgason describes it like this: “Every family faces some challenges, and sometimes those challenges involve the health of their child. For me, it’s important to try to understand what helps families to function the best that they can, given those challenging situations.”
Visit mfhd.byu.edu to learn more about the Marriage, Family, and Human Development graduate program.