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Emotion transformation: a grounded theory for uncovering painful triggers and repairing relational connection for parents of autistic children

Anna Robinson (School of Education, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)
Ennie Yong (GENIUS Kurnia Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Advances in Autism

ISSN: 2056-3868

Article publication date: 20 December 2021

Issue publication date: 18 January 2023




It is often voiced that parents of autistic children are the expert of their child, whereas parenting programmes target them as effective mediators for change. This paper aims to explore this unchallenged heuristic to develop an understanding of both emotional and relational needs of parents through trainers’ experiences of delivering emotion-focused and autism parent training.


This qualitative study used a constructivist approach of grounded theory to gain an in-depth understanding of trainers’ experiences from their encounters when delivering parent training. Six expert trainers were interviewed, and a two-phased coding of ground theory and an adapted thematic analysis was used.


An overarching theme emerged: emotion transformation from painful triggers, to enhanced attunement and relational repair. Four main themes containing 13 subthemes were identified. The interaction of these themes and subthemes are presented in a three-phase process model. Phase 1: uncovering painful emotions from a shared journey contained one theme: parent painful triggers. Phase 2: uncovering interpersonal rupture cycle contained one theme: relational rupture cycle within non-synchrony of attunement. Phase 3: parent–child relational repair contained two themes: repairing attachment bonds and therapist’s prizing stance.

Social implications

The authors challenge the parent as expert heuristic and propose that not all parents feel expert in neurotypical-neurodivergent intersubjectivity. The authors are curious to see whether trainers/therapists can guide parents through unprocessed emotions and non-synchrony of attunement to promote healing and relational repair, which requires further investigation.


To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is the first emotion-transformation process model grounded in humanistic principles of relational acceptance and emotion theory. The authors propose that a focus on process rather than outcome is more likely to result in higher parenting self-efficacy.



The authors would like to express their deepest gratitude to each of their expert trainers/therapists who agreed to be interviewed for this research: EFFT: Joanne Dolhanty, Joyce Chen, Shari Mayman, Katherine Henderson and RU:Teen: Mary Hamilton. A special thanks to Anne Ryan who conducted the interviews.


Robinson, A. and Yong, E. (2023), "Emotion transformation: a grounded theory for uncovering painful triggers and repairing relational connection for parents of autistic children", Advances in Autism, Vol. 9 No. 1, pp. 2-18.



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