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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 (258 Responses)

  1. Melanie Brittingham says:

    This applies to mothers of children with disabilities in general…not just Autism. My child has severe Cerebral Palsy and I feel like I’ve been at war since the day he was born. I’m exhausted, but love my son dearly. I could definitely use a more flexible employer and more sleep though.

  2. Scott AU Crawley says:

    But single autism dads with both kids also being diabetic, we have no stress, right?

  3. Bonnie says:

    this applies to moms of children with disabilities, NOT just ASD parents!!!

  4. Angeleta Banks says:

    This is a very good article. My son is 27 years old. He has a multitude of development disabilities and medical issues. I am a single parent also. Life is such a challenge with a special need a individual.

  5. Kay says:

    No, this applies to Moms with ASD because this essay and study was done with moms who have children with asd. NOt moms who have children with a disability. I’m sure this does apply to every parent with a child who is disabled. But this particular article in its context applies to it’s main topic. Mom’s with children who have asd have stress comparable to combat sodliers.

  6. Kkb says:

    @kay. Good point it’s important to remind people of the scope of the research. Thats not to diminish the stress of other parents of kids with disabilities. We who are that …we know those stresses. Take care of yourselves out there all moms and dads. Your kids need you healthy. Thumbs up!

  7. Christy Zartler says:

    I am a Mother of a 15 yr old who is severely autistic. She also has Cerebral Palsy. She has Self Injurious Behavior. She can injure anyone around her. I’ve been hospitalized because she almost bit my finger off. Usually bites are in larger soft tissue areas on my body not needing medical attention (I’m an RN). It was an eye opener, when the ER doc said, “How many times have you been bitten”? She was 12 yrs old at that time… She is non-verbal, but knows how to get a message across! She sure can be a sassy tart! :)

  8. Robin Gavin says:

    Being a parent of an child with autism can be a beautiful thing at times. When that child has emotional problems it can be hell. Trying to make a child with autism happy when they are alone and have nothing to do is close to impossible. My child is now 23 and is at home with me. I have been in contact with DDD and they have done nothing for me at all. She needs to be in a program doing things she likes. She loves animals and art. I am constantly buying her things to do and work with. I had her work on a horse farm once and she loved it. When that stopped she was sad again. I now have to watch her in a depressed state and she blames me for it. I have two other children on top of that I have a child who is grown and need meds and will not take them. Her mental state is not good at all and on top of that I have a 16 year old son who is not getting much of my time because of the other two. I am at the end of my rope at times. My stress is so bad at times that my hole body hurts.

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