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We're a little crazy, about science!

Autism and Parents: Reducing stress

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Raising an autistic child can be a gift. Unfortunately it can also be challenging and stressful. Let’s be real, it’s stressful just being a parent, throw in a disability that most new parents don’t understand all that well and it can be down-right depression inducing. Not because your child fall is the Autistic spectrum, but because you don’t know what that means or how to best help your child. Then it should be unsurprising that, according to a new study, peer-led interventions that target parental well-being can significantly reduce stress, depression and anxiety in mothers of children with disabilities.

Another one of a kind study, researchers examined two treatment programs in a large number of primary caregivers of a child with a disability. Participants in both groups experienced improvements in mental health, sleep and overall life satisfaction and showed less dysfunctional parent-child interactions. Proving that sometimes just simple information about what to expect can make things better.

“The well-being of this population is critically important because, compared to parents of typically developing children, parents of children with developmental disabilities experience substantially higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and as they age, physical and medical problems,” said lead author Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., Annette Schaffer Eskind Professor and director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development and professor of Psychology and Human Development, Pediatrics and Psychiatry. “Add to this the high prevalence of developmental disabilities – about one in five children – and the fact that most adult children with intellectual disabilities remain at home with aging parents, we have a looming public health problem on our hands.”

The study had nearly 250 mothers of children with autism [or other disabilities]. They were then randomized into one of two programs: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction [or MBSR for short] and Positive Adult Development [also shortened to PAD from here on out]. The MBSR approach is more physical, emphasizing breathing exercises, deep belly breathing, meditation and gentle movement, basically offering help to reduce stress to parents with different physical techniques. The PAD approach is more cognitive and uses exercises such as practicing gratitude, both offer different ways to help control stress.

Supervised peer mentors, all mothers of children with disabilities, received four months of training on the intervention curriculum, the role of a mentor and research ethics. The peer mentors led six weeks of group treatments in 1.5-hour weekly sessions with the research participants.

At the start of the study, before anything was started [baseline], 85 percent of participants had significantly elevated stress, 48 percent were clinically depressed and 41 percent had anxiety disorders.

Both the MBSR and PAD treatments [what should be unsurprising] led to significant reductions in stress, depression and anxiety along with improved sleep and life satisfaction among participants. Another great thing, mothers in both treatments also showed fewer dysfunctional parent-child interactions. While mothers in the MBSR treatment saw the greatest improvements, participants in both treatments continued to improve during follow-up, and improvements in other areas were sustained up to six months after treatment.

“Our research and findings from other labs indicate that many mothers of children with disabilities have a blunted cortisol response, indicative of chronic stress,” Dykens said. “Compared to mothers in control groups, this population mounts a poorer antibody response to influenza vaccinations, suggesting a reduced ability to fight both bacterial and viral infections. They also have shorter telomeres, associated with an advanced cellular aging process, and have poorer sleep quality, which can have deleterious health effects. All of this results in parents who are less available to manage their child’s special needs or challenging behaviors.”

Every child deserves to be loved, this should be without question. I’m sure that most, if not all parents, even when thrust into the stresses of having a child with special needs wants to do the best they can for their children. It should then be unsurprising that peer follow up with new parents like this would help reduce stress and help give parents better tools to interact with their children. It is almost certainly more stressful for a parent who wants to do right by their child, without any knowledge of just how to do that, than it is for someone who already has tools to support and facilitate the growth if their child.

Can’t get enough? You probably want the full study, which can be found — here!

Sources
Dykens E.M. & Fisher M.H. (2014). Reducing Distress in Mothers of Children With Autism and Other Disabilities: A Randomized Trial, Pediatrics , DOI: doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-3164

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