Autistic Mothers’ Wellbeing during Pregnancy and the Postnatal Period

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 2, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
S. Hampton1, R. Holt1, C. Allison2, E. Aydin1 and S. Baron-Cohen2, (1)University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, (2)Autism Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Background: Research into how autistic women experience the challenges involved in pregnancy and parenting is scarce. The perinatal period is a time of great change that for non-autistic women can often bring increased stress, anxiety and depression (Dunkel Schetter & Tanner, 2012). For autistic women, it is possible that the sensory changes of pregnancy and the social demands of interacting with medical professionals may make this time additionally challenging. It is therefore important to explore mental wellbeing for autistic women during pregnancy and beyond.

Objectives: The study aimed to explore stress, anxiety and depression during the perinatal period for autistic and non-autistic women, in order to identify areas where more support may be needed.

Methods: Participants completed self-report questionnaires, measuring stress (Cohen’s Perceived Stress Scale), anxiety (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory) and depression (Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale). The questionnaires were completed once during weeks 30-33 of pregnancy and again 8-12 weeks after birth. Participants were 20 non-autistic women (mean age 33 years) and 10 autistic women (mean age 30 years) who had completed questionnaires at both time points. A further 6 autistic women have completed the prenatal stage but have not yet reached the postnatal stage and a further 4 autistic women have been recruited but have not yet reached 30-33 weeks of pregnancy. Full data from at least 20 participants per group is expected by spring.

Results: T-tests to explore group differences for each questionnaire within each time point were conducted. Autistic mothers were significantly more stressed (t= -2.94 (16.02) p=0.01) and anxious (t= -2.65 (11.59), p=0.02) than non-autistic mothers at the postnatal time point but these were not significant at the prenatal time point. Difference scores were created for each questionnaire by subtracting prenatal from postnatal scores. Independent t-tests were performed on these difference scores to explore group differences in change over time for each questionnaire. There was a striking pattern across all questionnaires of an improvement in non-autistic mothers’ wellbeing from pregnancy to post-birth and a decrease in autistic mothers’ wellbeing. This difference did not reach significance for any of the questionnaires, though it approached significance for anxiety, t= -1.99(12.97), p=0.068. No other group differences were significant.

Conclusions: These findings indicate that autistic mothers may have lower wellbeing during the postnatal period than non-autistic mothers. There may potentially be a trend of an improvement in wellbeing for non-autistic mothers from pregnancy to 8-12 weeks post-birth and a decrease in wellbeing for autistic mothers. The small sample size may explain the lack of statistical significance for many of the comparisons conducted. It is possible that the differences will reach significance once data collection is complete. These tentative findings highlight a potential need for greater support for autistic mothers, particularly during the postnatal period.

Dunkel Schetter, C., & Tanner, L. (2012). Anxiety, depression and stress in pregnancy: implications for mothers, children, research, and practice. Current opinion in psychiatry, 25(2), 141-8.