Senior Tutor a Winner at CHS Research Symposium
Occupational Therapy credentialing staff member, Mrs Debbie Fewster, won second prize at the annual College of Health Sciences Research Symposium for her study titled: “Experiences and Coping Strategies of Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”.
‘I was surprised and did not expect to win anything at all. It has boosted my confidence and motivated me to continue my PhD with enthusiasm,’ she said.
As an occupational therapist working with children with autism, Fewster was interested in caregiver support and wondered why caregivers seemed reluctant to seek help. This created a dilemma for Fewster as seeking help seemed a logical solution to alleviate caregiver strain.
‘My study was an attempt to understand the challenges parents face as well as how they cope with these challenges to ultimately assist us as health care professionals in better understanding their needs as clients and to intervene appropriately,’ she said.
She thus embarked on a qualitative journey to investigate the lived experiences and coping strategies of parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
She used a purposive sampling method to recruit participants from a stimulation centre in KwaZulu-Natal and obtained a final sample and gathered data via semi-structured triad, dyad and individual interviews. These interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim,’ she said.
The stories shared by the participants revealed that parenting a child with autism was highly stressful and demanding on parents. Fewster said although there had been an increase in autism awareness, an element of stigma remained as people did not understand the problem.
This stigma further isolated and alienated the parents and families.
Fewster said despite the huge burden of care parents endured in raising a child with ASD, many positive experiences occurred along the way. ‘They spoke of appreciating life more and feeling privileged to have the responsibility to take care of such special children. Many strategies were employed by these parents ranging from journaling to proactive advocacy work.’
She believes society needs to accept what is different and not to judge without knowing or understanding why people behave the way they do. ‘We need to care about families grappling with disability and to give them a place in society. We all deserve our place in society, we deserve to be heard and understood,’ she said.
Fewster hopes her study will raise awareness about autism and provide information for intervention. She is currently working on her PhD that will focus on intervention mechanisms for these parents.
She paid tribute to her supervisor, Mrs Thavanesi Gurayah, who ‘instilled in me a passion for research’ and her husband ‘who spurred me on and supported me in so many ways’.