Date of Award

Spring 5-16-2011

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Education

First Advisor

Diana Slaughter-Defoe

Second Advisor

Katherine Schultz

Third Advisor

Milagros Cordero

Abstract

Autism is a severe developmental disorder that begins at birth or within the first few years of life. Research shows that mothers do the bulk of the parenting work in raising children with special needs, including autism. Despite the prevalence of autism, a dearth of literature considers, as central, the maternal experience in raising a child with special needs. This qualitative study focuses on the disorder of autism with the objective of elucidating how the context of autism shapes maternal meaning-making and subjectivity. Additionally, this dissertation examines how mothers of children with autism construct or reconstruct their meanings of motherhood as a result of their maternal experiences.

Grounded theory methods were employed in order to develop theory from the conceptualization of the data. The investigation consisted of in-depth audio taped interviews with 15 mothers of a child diagnosed with autism and participant observation in monthly parent support groups in the metropolitan Atlanta area.

Results showed that the experiences of raising a child in the current sociohistorical context of autism give rise to distinct maternal practices and perceptual processes that, over time, shape maternal subjectivity. More specifically, the context of autism is shaped by the experience of liminality, that is, the experience of existing between conditions that is characterized by the dislocation of established contexts, structures and systems and ongoing uncertainty regarding the future. For the subjects involved in this study, the experience of living liminality facilitated the development of distinct orienting contexts for making-meaning and navigating intrapersonal and interpersonal experiences that, in turn, manifested in a reappraisal and reconstruction of maternal subjectivity.

These findings have implications for professionals and practitioners who work with mothers and families whose lives are shaped by autism. Recognition of mothers’ meaning-making and coping can influence the efficacy of treatment approaches for mothers raising children on the spectrum, in addition to family therapy approaches, and child-based educational and therapeutic efforts. By making these experiences evident, this study contributes to the body of feminist psychological literature that challenges and extends mainstream conceptualizations of mothers, motherhood, and maternal development.