Sunday, May 14, 2017

Parents of Autistic Children Experience High Levels of Stress and Fatigue

Parents of Autistic Children with Experience High Levels of Stress & Fatigue

Studies indicate that 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 affect family functioning and marital relationships compared with parents of children with other neurodevelopmental conditions. Negative outcomes include: (a) increased risk of marital problems; (b) decrease in father’s involvement; (c) greater parenting and psychological distress; (d) higher levels of anxiety and depression; (f) added pressure on the family system; (g) more physical and health related issues; (h) decrease in adaptive coping skills; and (i) greater stress on mothers than fathers.

Mothers, in particular, may experience high levels of psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and social isolation. For example, research has found that nearly 40% of mothers reported clinically significant levels of parenting stress and between 33% and 59% experienced significant depressive symptoms following their child’s diagnosis of autism. Challenges in obtaining a timely diagnosis and lack of appropriate treatment services and education were contributors to parental stress and dissatisfaction. Likewise, research examining maternal stress, coping strategies, and support needs among mothers of children with ASD found that the most frequently reported important unmet needs were (1) financial support; (2) break from responsibilities; (3) rest/sleep; and (4) help remaining hopeful about the future. Parents of autistic children are at particular risk of sleep disruption and poor sleep quality owing to the high rate of sleep problems in their children.

There is also evidence to suggest that compared with mothers of typically developing children, mothers of children with autism report significantly higher fatigue associated with poor maternal sleep quality, a high need for social support and poor quality of physical activity. Fatigue was significantly related to other aspects of well-being, including stress, anxiety and depression, and lower parenting efficacy and satisfaction. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and worry (body tension, increased heart rate and rumination) can be mentally taxing and contribute to or exacerbate fatigue.


Research and anecdotal reports clearly indicate the need for interventions to specifically target parental stress and fatigue and its impact on families both in the present and longer term. Understanding parent perspectives and targeting parental stress is critical in enhancing well-being and the parent-child relationship. When families receive a diagnosis of autism, a period of anxiety, insecurity, and confusion often follow. Some autism specialists have suggested that parents go through stages of grief and mourning similar to the stages experienced with a loss of a loved one (e.g., fear, denial, anger, bargaining/guilt, depression and acceptance). Sensitivity to this process can help professionals provide support to families during the critical period following the child’s autism diagnosis when parents are learning to cope with feelings and navigate the complex system of autism services.
In addition to interventions targeting child-related problems, parents are likely to benefit from psycho-education about fatigue and its potential effects on well-being, parenting and caregiving. This includes information about strategies to minimize and/or cope with the effects of sleep disruption, increase health and self-care behaviors, and strengthen opportunities for social support. An assessment of the presence and severity of the physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms of fatigue, as well as the perceived impact on daily functioning, mood, relationships, parenting and other aspects of caregiving is also an important practice consideration. Future work should involve the development and evaluation of information resources and intervention approaches to assist parents of autistic children to manage fatigue and promote their overall well-being. The longer-term benefits for parents in terms of strengthening their general health, welfare and parenting should also be a focus of research. Lastly, research is needed to develop an understanding of the experience of fathers in parenting a child on the autism spectrum.
                                                       Key References & Further Reading
Abidin, R. R. (2012). Parenting Stress Index (4th ed.). Lutz, FL: PAR.
Barnhill, G. P. (2014). Collaboration between families and schools. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 219-241). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Estes, A., Munson, J., Dawson, G., Koehler, E., Zhou, X., & Abbott, R. (2009). Parenting stress and psychological functioning among mothers of preschool children with autism and developmental delay. Autism, 13, 375-387.

Feinberg, E., Augustyn, M., Fitzgerald, E., Sandler, J., Ferreira-Cesar Suarez, Z., Chen, N…Silverstein, M. (2014). Improving maternal mental health after a child’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder: Results from a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Pediatrics, 168(1), 40-46. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.3445.

Giallo, R., Wood, C. E., Jellett, R., & Porter, R. (2013). Fatigue, wellbeing and parental self-efficacy in mothers of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism, 17, 465-480. DOI: 10.1177/1362361311416830

Kiami, S. R., & Goodgold, S. (2017). Support Needs and Coping Strategies as
Predictors of Stress Level among Mothers of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Research and Treatment Volume 2017, Article ID 8685950,

Lee, G. K. (2009). Parents of children with high functioning autism: How well do they cope and adjust? Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 21, 93-114. doi:

National Autism Center. (2015). Evidence-based practice and autism in the schools: An educator’s guide to providing appropriate interventions to students with autism spectrum disorder (2nd ed.). Randolph, MA: Author

Pottie, C. G., & Ingram, K. M. (2008). Daily stress, coping, and well-being in parents of children
with autism: A multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 855-
864. doi: 10.1037/a0013604

Wagner, S. (2014). Continuum of services and individualized education plan process. In L. A.
Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 173-193). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Weiss, J. A., Cappadocia, M. C., MacMullin, J. A., Viecili, M., & Lunsky, Y. (2012). The impact of child problem behaviors of children with ASD on parent mental health: The mediating role of acceptance and empowerment. Autism, 16, 261-274. doi: 10.1177/1362361311422708

Pottie, C. G., & Ingram, K. M. (2008). Daily stress, coping, and well-being in parents of children
with autism: A multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 855-
864. doi: 10.1037/a0013604

Wilkinson, L.A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools (2nd edition). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of a text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in SchoolsHis latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Top 10 Most Popular Best Practice Posts


Blog Archive

Best Practice Books

Total Pageviews