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Social Work Doctoral Student Spotlight: Better quality of life for parents caring for adult children with autism

January 25, 2016

Christina Marsack, L.M.S.W.


Better quality of life for parents caring for adult children with autism


Professional Biography

Christina’s research encompasses issues of aging and disability, including quality of life for caregivers, aging in urban populations, and navigation of service delivery systems for individuals with disabilities. After earning a B.S. in special education from Wayne State University and an M.S.W. at University of Michigan as a Hartford Geriatric Fellow, she joined the staff at the Troy School District, where she has worked since 2007 as a special education teacher and as a teacher consultant. From 2009 to 2013, she did grief counseling for children, adolescents, and adult clients who had experienced the loss of a loved one. Christina has been a member of the School of Social Work’s part-time faculty since 2013, teaching the undergraduate Introduction to Social Work course and graduate courses on grief and loss, as well as theories of human behavior. She also has collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of County and City Health Officials, gathering and analyzing data on chronic disease self-management and public health emergency preparedness. Christina is earning a Ph.D. in Social Work with a dual title in Gerontology and will be defending her dissertation in February 2016.


Christina’s dissertation entails a nationwide quantitative study on the quality of life of parents of adult children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Analyzing responses from more than 320 parents to a web-based survey, Christina explored the influence of caregiver burden, financial strain, living arrangements, formal social support, and informal social support on quality of life. (In a follow-up to her dissertation, she conducted a qualitative study, using semi-structured interviews to explore parental experiences of caring for an adult child with ASD.)

Why It’s Important

Christina completed an extensive literature review in preparation for her dissertation that produced virtually no published studies focusing on parents of adult children (as opposed to minor children) with ASD. The paucity of literature on this topic supports the need for additional research with this population to determine interventions that can reduce the caregiver burden associated with having an adult child with ASD. “As the number of children being diagnosed with ASD continues to increase, individuals with ASD and their parents need to be the focus of further research,” Christina said. “As ASD is a lifelong condition, many parents often continue the role of caregiver after their child becomes an adult. It is imperative that we understand the experiences and quality of life of parents of adult children with ASD so we can provide adequate and comprehensive services to help the whole family system.” Doctoral Program Director Faith Hopp, who serves as Christina’s dissertation advisor, said Christina’s dissertation research “forges new ground in our understanding of adult autism caregiving” and is of critical importance “given the growing numbers of children on the autism spectrum, their diverse capabilities and needs as they reach adulthood, and the rapid aging of the population.”

Faculty Support

Hopp is joined on Christina’s dissertation committee by Associate Professor of Social Work Debra Patterson, Professor of Social Work Arlene Weisz, and Barbara LeRoy, director of Wayne State’s Developmental Disabilities Institute. Christina credits her committee members with enhancing her knowledge of research methods, as well as disability and aging issues. She appreciates their support and mentorship that has allowed her autonomy to shape her research according to her own interests and career goals.

To read about other social work doctoral students and the research they are pursuing, click here: http://socialwork.wayne.edu/phd/student-spotlight.php

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