We report results from a large qualitative study regarding the process of parents coming to understand the child has autism starting from the time of initial developmental concerns. Specifically, we present findings relevant to understanding how parents become motivated and prepared for engaging in care at this early stage. The study included primary data from 45 intensive interviews with 32 mothers and 9 expert professionals from urban and rural regions of Ontario, Canada. Grounded theory methods were used to guide data collection and analysis. Parents’ readiness (motivation and capacity) for engagement develops progressively at different rates as they follow individual paths of meaning making. Four optional steps account for their varied trajectories: forming an image of difference, starting to question the signs, knowing something is wrong, and being convinced it’s autism. Both the nature of the information and professional help parents seek, and the urgency with which they seek them, evolve in predictable ways depending on how far they have progressed in understanding their child has autism. Results indicate the need for sensitivity to parents’ varying awareness and readiness for involvement when engaging with them in early care, tailoring parent support interventions, and otherwise planning family-centered care pathways.
What is already known about the topic? Parents of children with autism often learn about their child’s autism before diagnosis and can spend long periods seeking care (including assessment) before receiving a diagnosis. Meanwhile, parents’ readiness to engage in care at this early stage can vary from parent to parent. What this paper adds? This study revealed how parents come to understand their child has autism—on their own terms, rather than from just talking to professionals. It also explained how parents’ growing awareness of their child’s autism leads them to feel more motivated to engage in care by seeking information and pursuing services. Four “optional steps” described how parents’ growing readiness to engage in care at this early stage can vary, depending on their personal process. Implications for practice, research, or policy The results suggest ways that professionals can be more sensitive (a) to parents’ varying awareness of autism and (b) to their varying readiness for being involved in early care. They also suggest ways to tailor parent supports to their individual situation and design care that is more family centered. Not all parents want high levels of involvement. Depending on their personal process, some parents may need care and support that is directed at them before feeling ready for professionals to engage them in care directed at the child.