“Just one additional hour of respite care per week was related to an increase of six to seven points in marital quality, which is approximately one half of a standard deviation.”
Parents of children with developmental disabilities face challenges that place them at high risk for distress and negative psychological outcomes. The demands placed on parents caring for a child with autism contribute to a higher overall incidence of parental stress, depression, and anxiety and adversely affects family functioning and marital relationships compared with parents of children with other intellectual, developmental, or physical disabilities. Research suggests that respite care can be an appropriate and effective intervention to potentially decrease stress and should be used as an appropriate coping strategy for parents of children with disabilities.
In a recent study, Harper et al. (2013) obtained survey data regarding daily responsibilities, marital quality, and the amount of respite care received from 101 mother and fathers who were together raising at least one child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Parents indicated that approximately 64 percent of their children spent time with a respite care providers, including grandparents, babysitters, community agencies, and extended family members. The researchers found that the number of hours of respite care was positively related to improved marital quality for both husbands and wives and that a 1 hour increase in weekly respite care was associated with an improvement in marital quality. This relationship was significantly mediated by perceived daily stresses and uplifts (qualities that led to better relationships) in both husbands and wives. More respite care was associated with increased uplifts and reduced stress; increased uplifts were associated with improved marital quality; and more stress was associated with reduced marital quality. The number of children in the family was associated with greater stress, and reduced relational quality and daily uplifts.
The study’s findings offer hope to couples parenting a child with ASD and have important implications for professionals who work with families caring for a special needs child. Respite care should be a critical component in a comprehensive family support plan because even a small increase in the number of hours of respite care has the potential to significantly improve marital quality. Counselors, therapists, psychologists, physicians, school administrators, special education teachers, social workers, and family advocates need to be aware of the respite care options available and be unified in their approach to informing and helping parents access these services. As the researchers conclude, “A coordinated approach to helping parents obtain and navigate ongoing respite care is long overdue.”
Harper, A., Dyches, T. T., Harper, J., Roper, S. O., & South, M. (2013). Respite care, marital quality, and stress in parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-013-1812-0
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Dr. Wilkinson is also editor of a recent volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.