Vicarious Futurity: Parents' Perspectives on Locating Strengths in Adolescents with Autism.


  • Jan Louise Hastie Toiohomai Institute of Technology
  • Christine Stephens Massey University Palmerston North



Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), adolescents, strengths, family functioning


INTRODUCTION: Parents’ perspectives of strengths in adolescents with autism is the focus of this research. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have some of the best outcomes for cognition, communication and social development when they begin intensive treatment during early childhood. Most research in ASD has focussed on this part of the lifespan. This has tended to ignore the need for research that covers the whole lifespan including adolescence and adulthood, where extremely poor outcomes often emerge. Furthermore, from a reductionist bio-medical view of ASD, research into adolescence and adulthood has highlighted the maladaptive and pathological behaviour of people with ASD. 

METHODS:  This qualitative study provides a space for parents to identify the strengths of adolescents, aged from 13–19 years, with ASD. Parents with the experience of raising an adolescent with ASD were asked to take or gather five photographs that displayed the strengths of the adolescent. Data were generated through the discussion of the photographs between the parent(s) or primary caregivers of the adolescent and the researcher. Eight families, with nine adolescents were recruited for the research and 10 parents were interviewed. 

FINDINGS: The results of the research suggest that parents could identify strengths in adolescents with ASD and that these strengths were evaluated relative to diagnostic features of ASD or as supportive of daily family functioning. Furthermore, identifying adolescent strengths supported the parents’ hopes for the future, described as “vicarious futurity.”

CONCLUSION: This perspective poses a challenge to the common assumptions that ASD is associated with dysfunctional family life dominated by poor parental mental health, caregiver burden and research that objectifies those with ASD as being challenging. Identifying strengths points to more opportunities for success for an adolescent with ASD. 


Author Biographies

Jan Louise Hastie, Toiohomai Institute of Technology

Programme Manager of the Bachelor of Social Work, Toiohomai Institute of Technology.

Christine Stephens, Massey University Palmerston North

Dr Christine Stephens

School of Psychology

Massey University

Palmerston North


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Attwood, T. (2003). Understanding and managing circumscribed interests. In M. Prior (Ed.), Learning and behavior problems in Asperger Syndrome (pp. 126–147). New York, NY: Guilford.

Benjak, T. (2009). Comparative study on self-perceived health of parents of children with autism spectrum disorders and parents of non-disabled children in Croatia. Croatian Medical Journal, 50, 403–409.

Boucher, J., & Bowler, D. M. (Eds.). (2008). Memory in autism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Boyd, B. A., Conroy, M. A., Mancil, G. R., Nakao, T., & Alter, P. J. (2007). Effects of circumscribed interests on the social behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1550–1561.

Braun, V., Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101.

Curl, K. (2008). Assessing stress reduction as a function of artistic creation and cognitive focus. Art Therapy, 25(4), 164–169.

Duarte, C. S., Bordin, I. A., Yazigi, L., & Mooney, J. (2005). Factors associated with stress in mothers of children with autism. Autism, 9(4), 416–427.

Eaves, L. C., & Ho, H. H. (2008). Young adult outcome of autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(4), 739–747.

Falk, N., H., Norris, K., & Quinn, M. G. (2014). The factors predicting stress, anxiety and depression in parents of children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(2), 3185–3203.

Friese, S. (2012). Qualitative data analysis with ATLAS.ti. London, UK: Sage.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquerrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Kanner, L. (1946). Irrelevant and metaphorical language in early infantile autism. American Journal of Psychiatry, 103(2), 242–246.

Ministry of Health. (2016). Autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from

Morgan, P. L. (2009). Parenting an adult with disabilities or special needs: Everything you need to know to plan for and protect your child’s future. New York, NY: AMACOM.

Neely-Barnes, S. L., Hall, H. R., Roberts, R. J., & Graff, J. C. (2011). Parenting a child with an autism spectrum disorder: Public perceptions and parental conceptualizations. Journal of Family Social Work, 14(3), 208–225.

Nunn, K. P. (1996). Personal hopefulness: A conceptual review of the relevance of the perceived future to psychiatry. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 69(3), 227–245.

Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon, D. R. (2002). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 257-276). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (1991). The interpretive turn: Philosophy, science, culture. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.

Treffert, D. A. (2005). The savant syndrome in autistic disorder. In M. F. Casanova (Ed.), Recent developments in autism research (pp. 27–55). New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers.

Treffert, D. A. (2009). The savant syndrome: An extraordinary condition. A synopsis: Past, present and future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 364(1522), 1351–1357.




How to Cite

Hastie, J. L., & Stephens, C. (2019). Vicarious Futurity: Parents’ Perspectives on Locating Strengths in Adolescents with Autism. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 31(1), 89–100.



Original Articles II