Autism Parenting: High Stress, High Rewards

stressed out mother

Mothers of adolescents and adults with autism show signs of chronic stress similar to soldiers in combat and struggle with recurring fatigue and work interruptions, new studies report. These mothers also devote significantly more time caregiving than those with non-disabled children. 

Researchers kept track of a group of mothers of adolescents and adults with autism for eight days. At the end of each day, the mothers were interviewed about their experiences. On four of the days, researchers measured the subjects’ hormone levels to evaluate their stress.

They found that one of the hormones associated with stress was very low, similar to people suffering from chronic stress such as soldiers in combat, researchers say in one of two studies published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

These findings show that this is the “physiological residue of daily stress,” according to Marsha Mailick Seltzer, a researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison who organized the studies. But while it is clear that mothers of children “with high levels of behavioral problems,” we still do not know the long-term effects on their physical health.

However, such hormone levels have been connected with chronic health problems such as decreased immune functioning, glucose regulation, and mental activity.

A companion study shows that mothers of children with autism spend at least two more hours per day caregiving than mothers of children without disabilities. These moms were twice as likely to be tired and three times as likely to have experienced a stressful event, researchers report.  

Furthermore, these moms were interrupted at work far more frequently than other moms, causing tension with their employers. 

Still, raising a child with autism does not mean that all positivity will be drained from one’s life. In fact, an article by Michelle Diament from Disability Scoop says:

“Despite all of this, mothers of an individual with autism were just as likely to have positive experiences each day, volunteer or support their peers as those whose children have no developmental disabilities…”

The real issue here is how to give mothers with special needs children the support that they need. These mothers experience high levels of stress in their daily lives, so they have less time to themselves. According to Leann Smith, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who worked on the study, “we need to find better ways to be supportive of these families.

One way to improve the situation, researchers suggest, is to participate in behavioral management programs, for they can “go a long way toward improving the situation for mothers and their kids alike.”

Written by Nina Bergold