Predictors of Maternal Stress in Pre-School and School Aged Children on the Autism Spectrum
Objectives: This study aimed to (1) determine if maternal stress levels differ between pre-school aged and school aged children on the autism spectrum, (2) analyse the relationship between family and child characteristics and maternal stress, and (3) identify any differences between the variables that predict maternal stress in pre-school aged children compared to school aged children on the autism spectrum.
Methods: This study investigated maternal stressors in 29 pre-school aged and 27 school aged children on the autism spectrum. Correlation and regression analysis were used to determine the impact of maternal age, family income and various child related factors on maternal stress levels. Specific child related factors used in the investigation were cognitive ability (measured using the WISC-IV and Mullen Scales of Early Learning), autism severity (measured using the ADOS-2), problematic behaviours (measured using the Child Behaviour Checklist), adaptive behaviours (measured using the Vineland Adaptive Behavioural Scales), repetitive behaviours (measured using the Repetitive Behaviour Scale-Revised), and sensory processing challenges (measured using the Short Sensory Profile). Maternal stress was measured using the Parental Stress Index (PSI-SF).
Results: No differences in overall maternal stress levels were found between the two age groups. Correlation analysis revealed that while several child related factors were associated with maternal stress in each age group, maternal age and family income were not correlated with any of the PSI-SF subscales. Hierarchical regression analysis was used to determine which correlates predicted maternal stress after controlling for each child’s age, sex, and cognitive ability. Results revealed that maternal stressors differed between the groups. Specifically stressors in the school aged group were found to be related to repetitive behaviours, sensory sensitivities and problematic behaviours, while stressors in the pre-school aged group were mainly associated with adaptive behaviours.
Conclusions: These results indicate that while overall maternal stress levels remain stable over time, mothers’ stress levels are impacted by different child-related factors throughout their child’s development. These results draw attention to the need to identify the unique factors that have an impact on maternal stress levels at different stages of childhood. In doing so, these findings can help inform clinical practice and provide insight into targeted and effective supports that will enhance the wellbeing in mothers of children on the autism spectrum.