The Stress Levels Autism Moms Face

Did you know that mothers of children with autism experience the stress levels of combat soldiers? Today I’ll be addressing this serious issue and giving some strategies on how to deal with stress for autism moms and dads.

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What the research says about stress levels

Several years ago, in 2009, a study was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders which examined the stress levels of 96 mothers of adolescents and adults with autism compared to mothers of children without disabilities. The mothers were interviewed at the end of each day and saliva samples were taken every four days to test their hormone levels. The study found that a hormone that was related to stress was extremely low, consistent with people experiencing chronic stress, such as soldiers in combat. The study also found that mothers of older children and adults with ASD spend significantly more time providing care and doing chores than mothers of typically developing kids and less time in their own leisure activities. In fact, the autism mom spends at least 2 hours more a day caring for their children than the moms of children who were not disabled.

These moms suffered from chronic fatigue and they were three times as likely to report a stressful event each day and twice as likely as the control group to report being tired. The mothers of the children with autism were interrupted at work 1 out of every 4 days compared to 1 out of every 10 days for parents of non-autistic children. The mothers of children with high levels of behavior problems had the most pronounced profile of chronic stress. The greater the child’s behavior problems were the worse the mother’s stress.

Long-term effects on physical health were not studied, but the hormone levels have been associated with chronic health problems and can affect glucose regulation, immune functioning, and mental activity. As an autism professional, I get asked all the time about how to deal with stress, so these associations seem pretty accurate.

Another study by Singh and colleagues published in 2006 suggested that stress levels can be reduced by teaching parents how to handle problem behaviors like aggression. In an earlier study by Hastings and Beck in 2004, it was noted that when interventions result in children’s language acquisition and in the reduction of problem behaviors, parents experience a greater sense of well-being and a reduction in reported stress levels.

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Stress management techniques for autism moms

Because of these studies, the question of how to deal with stress tends to come up quite a bit. First of all, I want to say as an autism mom for two decades and as a Behavioral Analyst, I tell parents that this is a marathon, not a sprint. In fact, it’s more of a marathon on a roller coaster if there could be such a thing. There are definitely ups and downs along the way. I have found that things like meditation can really help reduce stress. I have done the miracle morning meditation routine and that might be something to look into. Also, getting respite and care for your children as much as possible is ideal, because we all need a break and we all need to do some things for ourselves. You can join support groups, either locally or online. It might help just to talk to people who understand.

It’s important to spend time with your significant other and also with your other children. One piece of advice on how to deal with stress, that the doctor who diagnosed Lucas early on told us, was to spend time with me and just Spencer, my other son, spend time with me and just Lucas, and spend time with me and just my husband and not to focus on doing everything as a family unit. I know this is kind of sad in a way, but if you all have to stay home and not experience going to sporting events or going to musicals, it can get even more stressful.

I also think as an RN and a Behavioral Analyst that ruling out medical issues is really important. This is an ongoing process. While it seems stressful to go to appointments or to look into medical issues, I have found that digging in and finding out some of the medical problems that Lucas was experiencing actually reduces his problem behavior and caused me less stress in the long run. You want to look into medical reasons for the problem behaviors, especially if there’s a sudden worsening or a change in behavior. I also think counseling is a great idea. In chapter 12 of my book, I talk about how my husband and I got counseling shortly after the diagnosis of autism. Professional counseling, I think is always a great idea.

Another great tip is not only for knowing how to deal with stress, but in general, is to remember to take care of yourself as much as possible with things like exercise, time with friends, and even going on vacations. I think early on I got so involved with going to autism conferences, partially because I could get a hotel room and sleep in my own bed through the night without interruption, and I could also learn.

Those are just some general tips on how to deal with stress for autism moms and dads. I think the most important advice that I have for autism moms is to learn all you can about ABA, since learning how to apply this proven science almost always will lead to improved language and a reduction in problem behaviors.  With over two decades in the autism world, first as an overwhelmed and confused and stressed out autism mom, then as a Behavior Analyst, author and online course creator, I feel like the more you can become the captain of the ship and learn how to improve language, how to decrease problem behaviors across all settings, teach self-care skills and independent leisure activities, the less stress you will feel in the long run.

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Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?