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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 (295 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.

  9. Kathryn says:

    I am a combat stress mom. My son has multiple mood disorders. This study mentions other categorieS besides asd. It addresses mothers of children with “behavior problems.” We count too.

  10. Kathryn says:

    I think the reason the article addresses mom’s is because in general kids show their worst behavior to their mothers because they have that bond and know mom will always love them no matter what. Not saying Dads do not love…

  11. Melissa says:

    Yes, this also applies to dads and parents of children with any disability. This study just happened to involve mothers of adolescent and adults on the autism spectrum.

  12. Alexandra Bricklin says:

    I concur. I am one of those moms.

  13. Samantha Humphrey says:

    All caregivers of children with disabilities or health issues, such as diabetes, suffer extreme stress. The primary caregiver may suffer even more. As our children become adults, the reality that we will be care giving at this level for many more years only increases the stress. It is unfortunate that this article only addressed mothers with autism but the research was only based on those mothers.

  14. Elliot Frank says:

    We don’t need a study–applies to dad’s too!

  15. Patty Meiners says:

    I agree with this article and add special education teachers with students having autism, extreme behavior issues, and other severe disabilities. I too suffer from chronic fatigue, as a result of trying to meet the needs of each student. I’m on a leave of absence. I miss my students terribly

  16. Alicia Hutt says:

    I am so relieved to read this! I am well aware of this, however always felt as though I needed to try harder, do better, etc. I didn’t want to admit my own issues to a caseworker, or anyone else even those that were supposed to help. I had several “break downs”, was told I was bi polar, fell asleep driving, self medicated, suffered major depression, anxiety, put on a ton o weight which I KNOW was stress related, gained several ulcers, fought for what was right, gave up when I couldn’t access help and resources…was given all kinds of parenting advice….and was dealing with the other parent who was not involved, in denial, or didn’t want to take the time to understand and accused me of diagnosing everyone….I was told at a young age of 4 my first son was “Mentally Retarded”, needed to be put on Benadryl prior to school, but then at a meeting told that he wasn’t failing so he was fine, over and over district after district…school failed him! I was told that he didn’t need educational help! And told by my own family I didn’t know how to raise a boy, I should just beat him etc….all the while I knew there was something “different” , he was also a very sick baby and has several co morbidities! When I delivered twins when my oldest son was four, I knew within two months my second second son also had “issues”. Again a battle!!! I had two daughters as well who were upset because the boys had it easy, but also suffer from anxiety, depression and add.
    ANY CARING, loving parent/caregiver, loved one or responsible party for a unique individual knows the stress, responsibility, worry, etc….regardless of the disability or behavior! I know God chose me for several reasons, however the damage or what I call “my ptsd” of having gone through this and still am, is something I need to work on. I am so thankful for this article!!! Thank You

  17. Hector Viramontes says:

    Why there is any from of disability in the human race is beyond me, but there is, and yes its very stressful for the parents and family members all around during the journey to the miracle of a cure or therapy to a cure. God strenghten each of you on this thread because you have chosen to care along with your belief and not lose faith.

  18. Sharada says:

    Very true! I am managing a 28 year old adult with aspergers. He is verbal & when he is disturbed & repeats questions out of anxiety it is difficult. I try to remain calm answering him once. I write the answer & show him. If his behaviour becomes very difficult (starts shouting & tries to beat me I ask him to go to his room or I remove myself from him. I do Reiki & keep myself positive. I appreciate my son’s talents & give the time to develop it. I love him very much. I give him the freedom to be himself.

  19. Tramy Nguyen says:

    I have two boy who have autism but I do not mention what stressful I have and what happen in the future if I’m not here with my kids. Timothy now 16 years old still wearing diaper and non verbal . My Brendon now 10 years old but he speak a little that make me feel better . I’m trying to be healthy and happy with my boys even I do not know what will happen to them if I die. Anyway, Praying is a formula that helping me to get hope for my sons to talk to me or to call me Mom before I die.

  20. Liz OH says:

    I agree that the scope of the research is about moms of kids with autism but if we continue to divide among disability all kids with disabilities and families will not be supported. You can’t say that moms of kids with one disability is more stressful than another. It is really dependent on the family.

  21. Lisa Roberts says:

    This article is very clear that their research is related 2 asd, not diabetes, or cp. Had have been about other disabilities, u wouldn’t have mums of kids with asd posting these comments. As a Mum with 13yr old twins who have asd, I can tell u, unless u walk in my shoes, u have no idea of the constant violence, control issues, being held prisoner in your own home, fighting education, health, SS, family who refuse 2 believe the hidden disability. I am totally empathetic that parents of ALL disabled children struggle, but this post is about this disability & I am disappointed by the total lack of respect by other parents!

  22. meggie says:

    I am a single parent to a child with asd. I promise I can look around and see several situations that look much, much worse than what I go through with my child, however….

    If your child has palsy or is in a wheel chair, if they have something that makes them not terribly threatening physically…if the have the ability to actually communicate a need, in whatever fashion it takes to communicate it….
    Try to imagine asking your child to please not touch something that doesn’t belong to him….and, out of nowhere, getting smacked in the face. Or head butted in the nose so hard that the skin actually breaks open. Then imagine going three or four weeks with nothing but pleasantness….only to get smacked again for reasons unknown to you.
    This has just started with us. He’s 18, and someone at school hit him about 5 months ago. Up until that time, he had no aggressive incidents. Now, 6 in 5 months.
    I imagine it’s very much like a relationship with an abusive spouse. No idea what set them off, but something did….and they hit you yet again….
    I have no idea how/when/IF this will resolve. Until then, perhaps we can all remember to pray for one another, and to care…..because these illnesses are different, but they still have many similarities. The main one being parents whose hearts hurt over their children.

    Peace be with you all….

  23. Rachel says:

    As a researcher and a mother of a a child with ASD, I agree that this is PROBABLY true for all special needs parents, but as one person indicated the study was specific to ASD and FXS so that is what was reported. No reason for all to feel like they are left out personally. If you know anything about research, it is best to keep independent and dependent variables focused so that it the findings are based considered evidence-based. If you think someone should do research in this area on your child’s specific disability, advocate for it. That being said, do not take this above article too seriously when it compares us with combat soldiers. I pulled the actually study and the researchers DID NOT compare these parents with combat soldiers directly. They only allude to PSTD and cortisol levels in their literature review and do no make that specific conclusion. I am disappointed in the title of this article because it jumps to assumptions that are not based on evidence.

  24. Dale says:

    When reading the title of the study, I did struggle with not taking offense to the title. I was single dad of a child with autism for several years before marrying again and I am also a combat veteran (Marine, not solider). I know that this study was specific to a group of mother’s with children on the spectrum and the data collected showed the additional stress levels and interactions, etc. I would hope that this type of research continue and be broadened out to encompass parents of children with all types of disabilities. I would also hope that the editors and researchers do their best not to propagate the facial bias against against single fathers of special needs children and realize that any single parent will have increased challenges in the home, at work and social situations–as do joint parents.
    I am fortunate to have a very understanding boss and I am given a great deal of flexibility that has allowed me to take care of my family (teen with autism and two typical children) and I pay back that flexibility by working late hours after the kids are in bed and going above and beyond to pay back the trust my director has in me with flexibility and sometimes tele-working. I know that others might not get this opportunity and that is an additional stress in itself.
    I also must comment that the comparison to combat is not appropriate and while hormone levels may show similarities, that is the only data that can even come close to making a comparison. The snap of a bullet over your head, explosions and just the chaos of combat cannot be used to compare as it is a disservice to both veterans and parents of special needs–I am not saying that parents with special needs children do not have stress, only that the comparison is not appropriate.
    Again, I believe that research like this is needed and that more information supporting the struggles of parents with special needs children needs to be readily available to help us all–I just hope that the research will be objective (or at least the title) and help us convince the workplace, friends and others that we do have an extra challenge in our life and that we appreciate whatever flexibility employers and others can give us.

  25. Susan Lowery says:

    I agree that parenting a child with any disability is stressful, but as a mom of one son with ASD and another son with Down syndrome, I have found that Autism is 10 times more difficult to deal with than Down Syndrome. My husband and I feel that it would have been easier raising 10 kids with Down syndrome that it has been to raise just one with Autism. The stress level cannot be compared (in my opinion).

  26. julie says:

    I am a single parent of a 29 year old with Asbergers disorder I have raised him by my self.I have had support in his younger years with 1 to 1 workers,Respite care .But after he turned 18 was when the services were harder to find.It has been a difficult journey for both he and I,Not much family support at all .He is my son and I adore him but I am tired 29 years of devotion that I so not regret .But it is common to feel one has lost themselves along the way of raising a special needs individual.To raise a special needs individual alone as a single parent takes sacrifice and time,energy,It seems like a 24 /7 Commitment to help the individual with their goals and help them to be as self efficient as possible as they cf disc into adulthood.It is like taking on a huge tidal wave every morning when I wake up out my feet on the ground it is onward from the time i open my eyes ,His needs have to be met,his welfare is my priority .There are support systems out there .They are helpful. But it is important to find a place in the day for you .Take care of you .Because it can be exhausting and consuming.I know I have done this for 29 years and iam still doing it .He’s my son and he needs me.

  27. Paula Bossert says:

    Please encourage Mothers of children with classic autism never to stop helping them to communicate their feelings. I earned four teaching certificates in evening grad schools so that I could “be there” for my daughter and my students with all manner of disabilities. Recently when home for a weekend, Becky my fifty year old severely retarded autistic daughter, looked at me with a serious expression and tenderly said “I love you!” My heart and intellect told me she had learned to love me, the woman who never gave up trying to help her express her willingness to “be there” for me. Paula Bossert. M.A.

  28. Erin says:

    What you all must understand, is that AUTISM and ASD comes with a certain type of unpredictability that you do not see as much in other disabilities (please keep in mind, I am a mom with a kiddo with autism, but I have cared for MANY children with disabilities, including his, before he was even born). Kids with Autism also often have co-morbid conditions. So those of us dealing with this, aren’t trying to belittle your experience with your child with this article, but most of us are dealing with a child who has MULTIPLE disabilities, one of which is most likely behavioral in origin, and sometimes injurious to us physically (or our caregivers, IF we can find one willing to put up with this behavior) when our child has Autism/ASD. There is an unpredictability in stressful events/behaviors that you will not find as much of with other disabilities (you can plan your care or day, mostly without fear that, for some reason unkown to you, that routine just won’t work for your kiddo today). And honestly, because most of our kids don’t “look” like they’re disabled, I bet you’re not feeling nearly as ridiculed in public when your child is having a meltdown and everyone around you is looking to you to “control your child”, because it’s not obvious to everyone that he is disabled. But please, continue to focus on the fact that this article made you “feel bad” because you have a disabled child, too. Just remember, EVERYONE is fighting a battle. This is research done on THIS subject, and THIS disability only. No one is trying to belittle your battle……but try to remember ours is pretty darn hard, as well. :)

  29. Shelly says:

    Thank goodness for the ADA…they are helpful to both mothers and fathers with children who have special needs. Maybe it’s too overwhelming for some than others….but in any case at the end of the day, if there are no family or friends who can step in and assist…turn to either your regional center or refer back to help from the American Disability Act They help parents too!

  30. Lori says:

    I am a mother of a teen with Asperger’s and went through two deployments where my husband was out of the country for 15 months the first time and 12 for the second. I agree they are equal. And doubly hard when you have to deal with both at the same time. I don’t sleep often, I worry, always looking for care/treatment for my son. I avoid my own health issues as I take off so much time for my son. So, then when I get sick, I get really sick and down for months. Not an easy life for sure. Glad others realize this struggle and comforting to know I am not alone. Great article. :-) I wonder if there is a similar test to be done for siblings to kids with Autism. I know my daughter struggles as well because her brother gets a lot of the attention as he needs more help then she does. And her brother is older, so has to be hard to comprehend.

  31. Mama says:

    As Mother’s Day comes around again, we mothers must give ourselves an extra pat on the back. We are the warriors for our children: youngsters and adults. We fight a never ending battle for our children to be understood, when there are times we don’t even understand the rage and behavior. We are never out of it until we close our eyes. Oh how we want them to grow and learn and slowly every so slowly we see some changes. Not enough for this world that is moving so fast. Technology has replaced the human touch that our children need so much. Let’s all strive to get the masses educated 1in68. The time now.

  32. Jillian says:

    Bravo for this!! My 27 year old daughter has a rare chromosome abnormality. She is the sweetest person in the world 95% of the time. Then just with a flip of a switch, she becomes violent. I have very bad thoughts going thru my mind during her violent spells, and yet there is nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for her. I love her more than a mom could ever love a child.
    Nobody understands what we go thru. It is exhausting.

  33. Leash says:

    Some of these comments really annoyed me…. This article is about AUTISM and parents who care for such people! Not diabetes or asthma or whatever. If you want to read about that, go to another related article.
    In the land of autism, everyday is a battle (for the parent and the child), whether it’s explaining the small change to his routine, confronting the education system, listening to the same sentence 500 times, the outbursts, the meltdowns, watching the self-injurious behaviour or cleaning up projectile vomit from dinner every single night.
    This article is great at highlighting what carers have to go through (and our poor children). Instead of complaining about why parents with children with diabetes havent been added in this article, we should be more concerned with what this high level of cortisone in our bodies is doing to our health.

  34. Karen B says:

    Taking care of an adolescent or adult child with any sort of severe disability can be exhausting and stressful enough — the physical demands (lifting, not getting enough sleep, etc.), the mental stress (when will that next seizure happen?), and issues such as getting respite care, etc. However, the additional stress that many of us parents of children, teens and adults with ASD face is the violence by our child to self, family members, caregivers, peers and random strangers. That is what has nearly sent me over the age a number of times in the past two years since it intensified. Today my son’s aide had to go to the ER to get stitches, because my son threw his cup and it hit the aide’s face. Needless to say, we’re now having to find another aide who can endure the stress with us.

  35. ASDMom says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s good to also read the comments. I was feeling pretty alone and depressed today. It’s good to feel I’m not alone when yet another day goes by when my now 22 year old son, who has aged out of the school system and receives no services flipped his switch and had a daily melt down in which he hurts himself and me. Love him dearly but feel like someone else mentioned – a battered spouse – but I couldn’t walk away from my son. Hugs to all the caregivers :-)

  36. Shirley says:

    Time to also look at the Wives of men with Aspergers. Not much is focused on this group of caregivers.

  37. Kathleen Kinsolving says:

    This is ridiculous — a parent’s job is stressful, no matter what the kid is — the article reeks of prejudice — so tired of the autistic phobia!

  38. Gigi Davis says:

    How narrow mind this article or study is .. All mothers with adolescents and young adult with disabilities have the same level of stress ..diott to Melanie, Scott, and Bonnie.etc.. Why not do a study to all parents with disable adolescents and young adults. Then publish that.. Then get some funding to assist the family ( parents and adolescents ,young adults)..

  39. Wendy Vorpahl says:

    First off, to stop any resentment, I will say that this applies to all special needs caregivers–moms, dads, WHATEVER! If the child or adult you are caring for is not able to live independently, the care falls to you, and it takes a toll in ways that people ‘on the outside’ will never understand. Two of my four sons (ages 16 and 13) have classic autism, and summer is the hardest time of the year for me-no school days, no programs for kids their age, and my husband has a job that keeps him away in the summertime. Last year I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and osteoporosis: I am sure that years of caring for my sons is not helping as far as my health goes. This article is exactly what I needed right now-I feel validated!

  40. Robin says:

    To the woman who said this article “reeks of prejudice”, would you say the same about a study of women with breast cancer & stress, that it is prejudiced against other illnesses? I doubt it. The disabled are the true minority of this country. You don’t hear people talking about it in Oscar speeches as their cause, you always see “regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion” and I always have to ADD “what about disability??”. 57 million Americans & it’s the most underemployed population in the U.S. My daughter worked her butt off for 15 years in school only to be given a “certificate of completion” instead of a diploma because she couldn’t pass a discriminatory standardized test.
    When I ask an employer to consider creating an internship for my daughter so she can learn, they said “We are an Equal Opportunity Employer. She can apply.” Are there really equal opportunities for all? We know there are not. We face so many hardships, for Heaven’s sake, allow some of our stress to be validated. Thank you very much. Peace & blessings.

  41. Van says:

    I am single my sons father gave up on him since diagnosed ,he has married and adopted a REAL son as he put it ….but I’m here still struggling with my son BEN I love him but everything at this point seems to be a challenge and reading everyone’s comments ,I am relived that I am not losing this battle cause I am a bad mom.

  42. Shelly says:

    I am sorry…but I too have an young adult Autistic son. Yes he can raise my stress level so high until I feel like I am about to jump out of my skin sometimes, but at the same time he really doesn’t understand the concept of what he is really doing. It comes with the territory, but I totally refute violence! I will not be abused! I will take measures that will be necessary to protect my son and myself If ever placed in that position.

  43. Crystal Howell says:

    I also believe relationships are hard to have,keep, and maintain. With everyone people seems to think we are being non social but we are just tired. At the end of the day I just want to sit and watch TV. For that moment I’m normal. No one understands, I’m lonely I love my children but I would enjoy an adult conversation but at times I feel just too tired to be.

  44. JANE says:

    You can’t just change the facts of this story. It is about ASD and mothers, not fathers or other disabilities. There may be a chance thst these groups have similar stresses, but it has not been proven unless they are included in the study. As for PTSD, combat soldiers have a very high rate. Well, thanks to this study we know this particlar group of mothers do as well. As for not tolerating violence, that sounds good in theory. However, I can tell you from experience, often police departments, hospitals etc will not help you if you try to get help DDD is useless.. And then what do you do when you have an autistic kid thats bigger and stronger than you, crying after they lost control after a meltdown. And believe me, we have tried therapy, ABA, meds etc . Its easy to judge when you havent walked in someone’s shoes.

  45. Maribeth says:

    Great article I think the same thing applies to dads step moms step dads or any caretaker. Don’t lose hope and find beauty in the hard times.

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