Understanding Stress in Mothers of Children with ASD

Friday, May 12, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
L. Hewitson1, C. Schutte1, W. Richardson1, C. Marti2 and K. Barnhill1, (1)The Johnson Center for Child Health and Development, Austin, TX, (2)Abacist Analytics, LLC, Austin, TX
Background: Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often faced with numerous potential challenges and daily stressors associated with parenting a child with special needs. These can be categorized as either parent- or child-specific. Parent-specific stress may be derived from the lack of social supports, the absence of effective coping strategies, and lower psychological well-being or depression in one or both parents. Child-specific stress is most commonly associated with the symptomology of ASD including communication impairments, decreased cognitive abilities, and impairments in social interactions.

Objectives: The objective of this study was to examine both the frequency and the level of stress in mothers of children with ASD who were initiating clinical services at our center, and to ascertain whether this was correlated with selected demographic data.

Methods: In this study, we examined maternal stress in the mothers’ of 32 children with ASD (ages 2 to 11 years of age). Demographic data was compiled for each family, and mothers completed the Parental Stress Index-Long Form. ASD diagnoses in the children were confirmed by implementation of the ADOS and ADI-R assessments by a research-trained psychologist. Pairwise correlation analyses were conducted between maternal stress and selected demographic variables.

Results: Clinically relevant (>85th percentile) Total Stress PSI scores were reported in 72% (23/32) of mothers but this was not related to a number of demographic variables including maternal age, job status and education, marital status and family income. When broken down by Child and Parent Domain scores, 87.5% (28/32) and 18.75% (6/32) mothers had scores >85th percentile, respectively. Furthermore, out of mothers with clinically relevant Total Stress Scores, 30% (7/23) had Total Stress Scores of ≥99th percentile. A significant Defensive Responding raw score was reported for almost 10% (3/32) mothers, indicting that these respondents may have attempted to minimize their stress or the issues between themselves and their child in order to try to create a more favorable impression.

Conclusions: High maternal stress appeared to be driven by Child Domain scores, suggesting that many of the children in this study displayed qualities that make it more challenging for their mothers to fulfill their parenting roles, leading to dysfunctional mother-child interactions. What was more concerning, however, was the very high level of stress reported by some mothers. This has implications regarding the mother’s immediate mental health status and that of the mother-child relationship. While developing and implementing a wide-range of supports for parents raising a child with ASD may be critical for family stability, more immediate interventions may be required for some parents to ensure the short-term health of their family unit.