Parent perceptions of autism severity: Exploring the social ecological context

Robert Hock, Ph.D., Brian K. Ahmedani, Ph.D.

Published Online: August 06, 2012

Disability and Health Journal, October 2012 Volume 5, Issue 4, Pages 298–304



Health professionals incorporate parent reports into the diagnosis and treatment of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Yet little is known about the contextual forces that may shape parents’ perceptions of their child.


The current study seeks to: 1) compare the social ecological contexts of parents of children with ASD and parents of non-autistic children, and 2) explore the social ecological influences on parents’ perception of their child’s ASD severity.


This study employed a cross-sectional analysis of data from the 2007–2008 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) in the United States. Social ecological factors of interest included variables depicting family physical environment, family social environment, and individual parent characteristics.


Results indicate that parents of children with ASD had increased odds of reporting poor neighborhood social capital, greater aggravation, more difficulty coping, and lower levels of relationship satisfaction and mental health. Parents’ perceptions of their child’s ASD severity were associated with several factors of their social ecological context. More severe parent-reported ASD was associated with aspects of the physical environment (rundown housing and garbage on the street), the social environment (parent relationship satisfaction) and individual parent characteristics (parent aggravation and mental health).


Results suggest ways that professionals can contextualize parent reports to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of children with ASD. Findings also highlight a need for longitudinal research using well-characterized measures to determine the nature and direction of relationships between contextual factors and parents’ perceptions.