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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 (272 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….

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