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Mothers of Autistic Kids Benefit from Peer-Led Intervention

Mothers of Autistic Kids Benefit from Peer-Led Intervention

Peer-led support groups that target the well-being of moms with disabled children have been found to significantly reduce maternal stress, depression, and anxiety, according to new research from Vanderbilt University.

“The well-being of this population is critically important because, compared to parents of typically developing children, parents of children with developmental disabilities experience substantially higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and as they age, physical and medical problems,” said lead author Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D.

“Add to this the high prevalence of developmental disabilities — about one in five children — and the fact that most adult children with intellectual disabilities remain at home with aging parents, we have a looming public health problem on our hands.”

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, involved the use of two treatment programs designed for primary caregivers of a child with a disability. Participants in both groups experienced improvements in mental health, sleep, and overall life satisfaction and showed less dysfunctional parent-child interactions.

Nearly 250 mothers of children with autism or other disabilities were randomized into one of two programs: 1) Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a more physical program that emphasizes breathing exercises, deep belly breathing, meditation, and gentle movement; or 2) Positive Adult Development (PAD), a more cognitive approach that uses exercises such as practicing gratitude.

The peer mentors — mothers of children with disabilities who received four months of training — led six weeks of group treatments in 1.5-hour weekly sessions with the research participants.

At baseline, 85 percent of participants had significantly elevated stress, 48 percent were clinically depressed, and 41 percent had anxiety disorders.

Both treatment programs resulted in significant reductions in stress, depression, anxiety, improved sleep, and life satisfaction among participants. Mothers in both treatments also showed fewer dysfunctional parent-child interactions.

While mothers in the MBSR treatment saw the strongest  improvements, participants in both programs continued to improve during follow-up, and improvements in other areas were sustained six months later.

“Our research and findings from other labs indicate that many mothers of children with disabilities have a blunted cortisol response, indicative of chronic stress,” said Dykens, professor of psychology and human development, pediatrics and psychiatry at Vanderbilt.

“Compared to mothers in control groups, this population mounts a poorer antibody response to influenza vaccinations, suggesting a reduced ability to fight both bacterial and viral infections. They also have shorter telomeres, associated with an advanced cellular aging process, and have poorer sleep quality, which can have deleterious health effects.

“All of this results in parents who are less available to manage their child’s special needs or challenging behaviors,” Dykens said.

Source: Vanderbilt University

Support group for women photo by shutterstock.

Mothers of Autistic Kids Benefit from Peer-Led Intervention

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Mothers of Autistic Kids Benefit from Peer-Led Intervention. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 31 Aug 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.