Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience higher levels of stress in comparison to parents of neurotypical children and consequently are more susceptible to negative health and social outcomes. For example, they are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, isolation, and burnout. Previous research also suggests that parental stress is often correlated with child characteristics, locus of parenting control, parenting satisfaction, and social support. Additionally, challenges in obtaining a timely ASD diagnosis and lack of appropriate treatment services and education are factors identified in the literature as contributors to parental stress and dissatisfaction.
However, less is known regarding how individual child characteristics (i.e. gender), access to comprehensive treatment services, and individual functioning intersect to impact stress levels in parents of children with ASD. The sex ratio in ASD is one of the most consistent findings in the field, with the condition more commonly identified in boys, 5 times more common among boys (1 in 49) than girls (1 in 189). Previous research has acknowledged that girls may present differently than boys, making timely diagnosis more difficult given our current understanding and availability of diagnostic instruments. Research has also shown that early intervention is associated with better outcomes for children with ASD. However, if a child is identified later in life, early intervention is less likely to occur, possibly impacting the outcome of treatment services. Consequently, parents of female children with ASD may experience challenges not only in obtaining a timely and accurate diagnosis, but also in connecting to treatment services and identifying sources of social support.
A study in the open access journal Autism Research and Treatment examined the relationship between parental stress and access to services in families of children with ASD, as well as how this relationship differed by the sex of the child. The researchers expected to find that families of female children with ASD have less access to services, and predicted that fewer services would be associated with greater parental stress.
The researchers found that parenting stress was higher for parents of girls than for parents of boys, and for parents of girls (but not boys), fewer services predicted higher parental distress. The implications of this study provide important information for service providers working with children with ASD and their parents. Understanding and targeting parental stress is critical in enhancing well-being and the parent-child relationship. This is especially important for parents of girls with ASD because they may lack mental health services that target and address parental stress. Moreover, difficulty in identifying girls with ASD and focusing on their specific needs may generate additional parental stress. Future research comparing services before and after assessment is recommended to better understand the impact of services and support in regard to gender differences, parental stress, and access to services. Likewise, there is a need to focus on specific challenges experienced by parents of female children with ASD, including ways to increase access to comprehensive treatment services and the prevalence of educational and social support. Differences in parental stress experienced between mothers and fathers should also be examined.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, 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. He is also editor of a best-selling text in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools, and author of Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. Dr. Wilkinson's latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).