Did you know that mothers of children with autism experience the stress levels of combat soldiers? Today I’ll be addressing this serious issue of autism mom stress and giving some strategies on how to deal with stress for autism moms.
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Research of Autism Mom Stress Levels
Several years ago, in 2009, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a study on autism mom stress. The study examined the stress levels of 96 mothers of adolescents and adults with autism compared to mothers of children without disabilities. They interviewed the mothers at the end of each day and took saliva samples every four days to test their hormone levels. The study found that a hormone that was related to stress was extremely low in these mothers. This was 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. Also less time in their own leisure activities. In fact, the autism mom spends at least 2 hours more a day caring for their children.
These moms suffered from chronic fatigue. 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 parents of non-autistic children who were interrupted 1 out of every 10 days. 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 they found are associated with chronic health problems. They can affect glucose regulation, immune functioning, and mental activity.
Autism Mom Stress Management Tips
Another study published in 2006 suggested that stress levels can be reduced by teaching parents how to handle problem behaviors in their children. 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.
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 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. 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.
Spend Time with Family
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 Spencer, my other son, one-on-one. Also, spend time with Lucas one-on-one and spend time with 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.
Take Care of Yourself
I also think counseling is a great idea. My husband and I got counseling shortly after Lucas was diagnosed with autism. I talk about it in chapter 12 of my book. Professional counseling is a great idea for everyone.
Another great tip is to remember to take care of yourself as much as possible. Exercise, spend time with friends and even go 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 autism mom stress. These tips will also work for autism dads, grandparents, and other caregivers as well. 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. I feel like the more you can learn how to improve language, 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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