Expanded Social Support Helps Parents and Autistic Children

Caring for an autistic child is challenging. Parents of autistic children consistently report greater stress levels, more caregiving burden and depression than parents of typically developing children.

Currently, about one in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Given this prevalence of ASD, the need to provide parents and their children better outlets to manage stress is becoming a national concern.

In fact, experts already acknowledge that chronic caregiving stress is associated with poorer physical health — more pain, more disruptions from physical-health problems and lower overall health-related quality of life.

Canadian researchers have examined the situation and discovered that a powerful way to reduce this stress is improved social support. Their finding appears in the journal Family Relations.

Researchers from Concordia University in Montreal determined that support is essential as children — and their parents — age. Moreover, improving a person’s mental health may significantly lower future health costs.

For the study, psychology professors Jean-Philippe Gouin and Erin T. Barker, as well as their co-authors, investigated whether social support can protect against stress-induced immune problems.

They asked 56 healthy parents of children with ASD to complete questionnaires on whether they received social support and asked the parent to provide a self-rated health assessment and to list if they had recent somatic symptoms.

The “type” of social support a parent received was classified as formal social support (provided by health or social services professionals) or informal social support (provided by significant others, friends and family).

Study participants also provided blood samples to check for inflammation — the automatic reaction of the innate immune system upon exposure to infection, injury or abnormal cells, or psychological stress.

Research has shown that chronic low-grade inflammation is also associated with greater risk for several age-related diseases, including cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, certain cancers, autoimmune diseases, frailty, dementia, and early mortality.

The results indicated that greater informal social support was associated with lower inflammation, and that a higher number of formal support services received by the family was related to better self-rated health and lower inflammation.

Notably, the impact of support services on the parents’ inflammation levels increased with the age of the affected child.

“The impact of chronic caregiving stress on health likely becomes more pronounced as the parents are aging and their immune system responds less efficiently to challenges,” says Gouin.

“The need for formal and informal support thus remains high even as the child with ASD is becoming an adult.”

He adds that the study results emphasize the need for continued services for these families, who are experiencing lifelong parenting challenges.

“Given the reciprocal relationship between child and parental health and well-being, supporting the parents in coping with chronic caregiving stress might not only improve the child’s outcome, but also may help maintain an optimal family environment for a longer period of time.

Supporting the parents in providing care to their children with ASD might then represent a cost-effective strategy in the long-term.”

Gouin is now continuing this research by following families during their ASD-affected children’s last years of high school and the first few years after graduation to examine the impact of social support services on parental health.

Source: Concordia University