Mothers of teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual disability (ID) report higher levels of stress and other mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, than mothers of typically developing teens, according to a new study published online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
The findings show that stress levels were highest among moms whose teens also show signs of clinical-level disruptive behavior disorders in addition to ASD and/or ID.
However, moms in the study who maintained an optimistic outlook on life — believing that good rather than bad things would happen to them — experienced fewer negative effects associated with parenting a child with ASD or ID and comorbid behavior disorders.
For the study, Dr. Jan Blacher, autism expert and distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), and her research colleague Dr. Bruce L. Baker from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), wanted to investigate how such disorders affect mothers in particular.
They surveyed 160 young teens (age 13) and their families. A total of 84 of the participants were classified as having typical development, or TD; 48 had ASD; and 28 had ID.
Blacher is the director of UCR’s SEARCH (Support, Education, Advocacy, Resources, Community, and Hope) Family Autism Resource Center and works with kids of all ages with ASD. She said this study, however, is special because it focuses on a pool of adolescents who are the same age.
“Usually when studies have looked at the impacts of autism on families, the children involved have reflected wide ranges of ages,” said Blacher. “Here, we’ve eliminated the variance related to developmental stage.”
The first mother and teen assessments took place during in-person visits at the research site. Later, the researchers asked mothers to complete separate questionnaires privately to measure youth behavior problems and parental well-being.
“ASD group mothers scored highest on each of the two distress indicators,” the researchers wrote, adding that ASD group mothers’ levels of stress and mental health symptoms did not differ significantly from those of ID group mothers.
The findings harken back to previous research suggesting that parents of children with ASD have reported levels of stress consistent with those of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Furthermore, mothers’ levels of parenting-related stress and other psychological symptoms are magnified by the presence of one or more clinical-level behavior disorders, added the researchers.
“The most common disruptive behavior disorder is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, but children with autism can also show signs of oppositional defiant disorder, depression, and anxiety,” Blacher said. “The disorders that are most disruptive to parents are those we describe as ‘acting out’ disorders and involve behaviors like not following rules, hitting, screaming, arguing, lashing out, and breaking things.”
Still, the researchers emphasize that parents who face these types of challenges need not resign themselves to a lifetime of overwhelming stress. In fact, the moms in the study who showed the most resilience had one thing in common: an optimistic outlook on life.
Using the Life Orientation Test, which measures individuals’ optimism or pessimism, the researchers found that mothers who were more optimistic experienced fewer negative effects associated with parenting a child with ASD or ID and comorbid behavior disorders.
In those cases, a more positive outlook on life became a buffer against parenting-related stressors.
“It’s in the face of stress when optimism really becomes important,” Blacher said. “A mom that has a high level of optimism is going to be able to better weather stress and be better prepared mentally for the challenges ahead.”