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Autism Moms Have Stress Similar To Combat Soldiers

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Mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress comparable to combat soldiers and struggle with frequent fatigue and work interruptions, new research finds. These moms also spend significantly more time caregiving than moms of those without disabilities.

Researchers followed a group of moms of adolescents and adults with autism for eight days in a row. Moms were interviewed at the end of each day about their experiences and on four of the days researchers measured the moms’ hormone levels to assess their stress.

They found that a hormone associated with stress was extremely low, consistent with people experiencing chronic stress such as soldiers in combat, the researchers report in one of two studies published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“This is the physiological residue of daily stress,” says Marsha Mailick Seltzer, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who authored the studies. “The mothers of children with high levels of behavior problems have the most pronounced physiological profile of chronic stress, but the long-term effect on their physical health is not yet known.”

Such hormone levels have been associated with chronic health problems and can affect glucose regulation, immune functioning and mental activity, researchers say.

In a companion study, the researchers followed up with the same group of mothers daily to interview them about how they used their time, their level of fatigue, what leisure activities they participated in and whether or not stressful events occurred. This information was then compared with data from a national sample of mothers whose children do not have disabilities.

Mothers of those with autism reported spending at least two hours more each day caregiving than mothers of children without disabilities. On any given day these moms were also twice as likely to be tired and three times as likely to have experienced a stressful event.

What’s more, these moms were interrupted at work on one out of every four days compared to less than one in 10 days for other moms.

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 disability, researchers found.

“On a day-to-day basis, the mothers in our study experience more stressful events and have less time for themselves compared to the average American mother,” says Leann Smith, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who worked on the studies. “We need to find more ways to be supportive of these families.”

In particular, the researchers say that parents need better respite options and flexibility from their employers. Further, they say, programs to help manage behavior problems can go a long way toward improving the situation for mothers and their kids alike.

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Comments (219 Responses)

  1. Jackie says:

    So, what are the long term physiological effects of combat soldiers, and more importantly, what works for them to lessen the negative effects of long term chronic stress?

    Based on my personal experience, the changes in blood glucose levels could merely be from the need to have instant energy, and reaching for sugary stuff becomes more instinctive than rational. Seriously, count how many bakeries and donut shops there are in our neighborhoods and notice that they can even be more affordable, in terms of money and time, than maintaining healthy eating habits. You have to eat the daily recommended amount of fruits and veggies to keep up with the quick energy you get from refined sugars. Consciously cutting back on refined sugars should help our blood glucose regulation.

    Immunological and mental functions… what works for the combat soldiers?
    This type of study may help both combat soldiers and mamas (parents) of children with special needs. Please keep us informed.

  2. Letricia says:

    Its a different life…

  3. Mike grigg says:

    Before Autism was was really know about and as aboy I walked my sister to school she has many behaviours like my son my sister bernadettee who died when she was 13 behaviours were much the same as david , my mother she suffered alot stress and even use to self abuse us and he self .
    One the differculties we had we did have the information about Autism whe had information about about Epilepsy and my mother mainstreamed with out a understanding of discrimination . As I grew up my son had epilepsy but not the understanding of autism . As I grew older I learnt about Autism and develop strategies but then in the mainstreams friends made it worse as they did understand autism I have diabetes and Arthrrsis in my neck because my hear been pulled but one the worst stress is people do not believe you about melts or understand about inclusion some autistic people are vulnerable and when you advocate for you child you not believed by other memebers of the community and that creates a lot hurt a lot . In fact no one really under stand we grevie a lot as parents
    Im from new zealand really but i want to participate so I put albama i love go to new york

  4. Kate says:

    Can someone please give this article to my boss?

  5. Autim Mom says:

    It’s not just the moms… the Dad’s are affected as well.

  6. Chris says:

    I was fortunate not to have to be the main breadwinner and to have an extremely supportive and inclusive extended family; but still only held one job successfully, due largely to having a boss who was cooperative and allowed flex time because she was the legal guardian of a brother who had Downs and really “got” it. It gave me self confidence and hope and self esteem but was not replicated anywhere since ; so the stress and guilt of having be off or distracted from employment tasks to do medical appointments and transportation and scheduling and diet just takes a toll on your own health and mental functioning…

  7. Leigh says:

    To all of you combat veterans….this article is not suggesting that living with autism is at all a similar experience to watching your best friend get shot and die in your arms. It is suggesting the stress levels are similar. Again NOT the experience, the stress level….that is something that is measurable….as the article said “They found that a hormone associated with stress was extremely low, consistent with people experiencing chronic stress such as soldiers in combat”

    They could have easily said SUCH AS police officers, or firefighters….then those folks would have been here saying ‘no way’

    Maybe they would have been better to say we suffer from battle fatigue…which comes from a constant high level of stress.

    I have two profoundly autistic children, who are adults now, but the stress level has been constant for 25 years…from constantly being on alert for a 2 year old who would be gone in the blink of an eye, and could run like the wind….straight into traffic, to a 20 year old who might reach for a woman’s breast just because it looked fascinating. That’s certainly not watching your buddy get his brains blown out, but the constant, unrelenting stress level can be equally high. We may not commit suicide, but look at the divorce rate amongst parents of special needs kids, and when it comes down to it, some folks just handle stress better than others.

    I don’t think anyone, including the author of the article, is trying to negate your combat experience, they’re just trying to give an example of when stress levels have been tested, parents of young adults with autism and behavior problems, and combat soldiers show test results at the same level That’s science, not a test of who’s had the most traumatic experience.

  8. Juli Chandler says:

    The Article you post about Moms of Autistic children having the same stress as Combat Veterans!!! Please send the People who did this Research over to Iraq & Afghanistan on the Front Lines & let them be there for about 1 month & lets Truly see how the 2 compare then!!! Whoever wrote this article Must be on some Crazy kind of Medications!!! They do not know anything about the Life of a Combat Veteran!!!

  9. tiredmama says:

    @Amber Robinson I think the article and research is trying to explain the stress mom and what it is like raising a child with autism. We don’t get leave, time-off, vacation, PTO, so the stress is much different.

  10. Kerri says:

    It makes me extremely angry to here the post of the person who “downs” the author of this article, simply comparing and relating the stress levels of parents with children of autism to combat families. That person NEEDS AND MUST get a grip!! I can guarantee and bet my life that this person has no children on the autism spectrum, let alone one that is severely autistic since being diagnosed at the early age of 2 yrs such as my dear boy. He is now 3.5 yrs; cannot speak a single work, cannot communicate in any way, no motor or fine motor skills whatsoever, gets fed everymeal consisting ONLY of puréed baby food, due to severe texture and sensory issues, abnormal sleeping patterns, etc. This disorder does not only affect my 3 yr old, it affects my 9 yr

  11. Lisa says:

    Yes, and in the case of Aspergers – on the spectrum, the developmental delay (and it’s symptoms) are highly genetic, which means she may be married to an adult version of the child, which can impact her ability to think straight. Her husband may be “functional” at he work place, but is many times exacting, demanding, highly agitated over most anything, unavailable to co-parent, and is unable to help with household tasks… so she is running a behaviorally disturbed home for husband and children. Just say’n.

  12. Lisa says:

    In addition, we have to say out loud here that the reason a writer would compare combat soldiers stress to stress of a Mom of an Autistic child is because our society so minimizes real stress that is not war. It’s an attempt to connect the dots between high levels of demand, stress and lack of sleep to what our society considers legit PTSD – that belonging to war survivors only. Such a bunch of bunk. I’m a PTSD therapist. Big T TRAUMA and little t trauma can have identical symptoms, and shut ones chance at living life down in the very same way. It’s about validating mothers of autistic kids, not minimizing soldiers, I imagine.

  13. Anne says:

    Anyone who has been the primary caregiver of someone on the Autism Spectrum knows they are stressed by daily childcare activities beyond what most parents experience. Add to that the disruption of work, sleep, family and outside relationships, and the lack of down-time, understanding by others, and ability to access meaningful assistance from schools, medical providers, etc., there is no doubt that a toll is taken on the body, mind and spirit of the primary caregiver as well as other family members. The general population needs understands that with every 8 to 10 children (depending on the study) diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum, this is a condition that will have long-term effects on everything from education to the economy over the next several decades. My question is: This article was written in 2009. Why is it, that 4 1/2 years later, it is still being debated?

  14. Suzanne says:

    Am I the only mom that loves autism ? I love that my son sees the world in a different way and I get to experience it with him. I wouldn’t trade his quirky and unique personality for all the gold in casterly rock. Every day I learn something from him or one of his classmates in his autism centered special needs class. And before someone starts the “my kid is more autistic than your kid” pity contest, My son is in the very high classification with classic autism — not spectrum disorder, but what the DSM IV considered autism twenty years ago—and we always say that we aren’t suffering from autism , we’re having a great time with autism. I think everyone can agree that parenting a special needs child is sometimes very hard, but so is parenting an average child . Maybe we should all stop focusing on the “suffering” with the hard part and start giving thanks for all the great parts. I truly feel blessed to be on the wonderful journey with my son and I would NEVER let someone say that the “burden” of caring for him is like going to war and shooting men, women, and children before they shot me.

  15. Sharon says:

    I would assume that your study you did asked a number of controlled questions that gave you the answers you were looking for. Are mothers of children with autism tired? Stressed out, unable to handle it all? You bet!
    Those of us with an adult child with severe behavioral issues drain us mentally and physically everyday . There is not enough help. I personally have more help than a lot of people, and I am still physically and emotionally drained daily. I also have a child that is extremely difficult.
    Going to war, combat ….it may be similar in many ways.
    Most of us moms have not be to war, but some of us imagine this is what it is like sometimes.
    Please let us know the results of how you can help us handle the long term stress.

  16. Ted says:

    I’m a single dad with 1 child with ASD and 2 others with out. Been on our own for 5+ years. I was actually looking for data of fathers and there is none apparently. You have my email address and I’d appreciate it if you’d point me towards what I’m looking for… If it exist. If not, wow am I that rare?

  17. Toni-Anne Carullli says:

    Being a Mom of a 20 year old Autistic Son, who has had to deal with The Board of Education semi annual, and annual meetings, Department of Transportation for Bussing to school, Phycologists, phycologists, psychiatrist, neurologist, medications and Primary Doctors, Social Security, Having to obtain Guardianship, Setting up after school care, Agency’s, Medicaid, Medicaid Waiver, Now looking into Day Hab, Work Programs and Residential Housing all of this with no help while trying to juggle my job which has been a major challenge due to days that I need to take off . It is a wonder I haven’t gone off the deep end yet!! Key word is YET!!!! Although I do remember having some small nervous breakdowns along the way. I would agree this is much like Stress similar to combat, not one agency makes this easy requesting the same documentation over and over and over. As if he is going to wake up tomorrow and not be Autistic anymore!!! If a parent has an Autistic Child they (the parent) should also be considered disabled !!! Can someone also please show this to my boss!!!!!

  18. Cherri D says:

    I have a 26 yo son w autism. Low functioning but very verbal and very aggressive!! When he lived at home I was on constant guard. Sometimes he would attack me and I would fear for my life. I never slept a whole night in 24 years. He is now living in a nice group home nearby and comes home one day a week. On those visits that I see the behavior start my body reacts. And I can feel the adrenalin rise.
    Yes a healthy diet and especially some regular exercise does help. But many ppl w autistic children don’t have the time, childcare, or money. I’ve lived it.
    And I can see where those of you who have been in combat can be upset. But these findings are based on hormone/chemical levels. And fyi PTSD is not just for soldiers.

  19. jennifer aaron says:

    I agree with this article. I am one of those mothers that is seeking help. Especially in the summer. i am currently a stay home mother and will be looking for work. This season i checked for summer camps that work with SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN. I could only find camps that were high in pricing or did not have ample service for the spectrum so i could not find help….. We need more services to train and assist special needs kids.

    I do go to support meetings but we would love to have meetings where we can bring our children and they have a play area and space where the would be safe. For now we do the best we can in managing our time, parenting and fitting in sleep when all possible.

    jenn AARON

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