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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 (206 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…

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