Helping mothers of children with autism

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According to new findings, interventions to increase parental well-being can significantly reduce the stress, depression and anxiety felt by mothers of children with autism. Researchers from Vanderbilt University looked at two treatment programs used by primary caregivers of women with disabled children. Nearly 250 mothers of children with autism who were divided into the two treatment programs experienced improvements in mental health, sleep and overall life satisfaction as well as showing less dysfunctional parent-child interaction.

Experience substantially higher emotional challenges

“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,” explained lead author Elisabeth Dykens, PhD, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. “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.”

Two strategies lead to significant improvement

One of the groups participated in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) while the other group used Positive Adult Development (PAD). The MBSR approach is physical, using breathing techniques, deep belly breathing and gentle movement. PAD is more cognitive and uses exercises like expression of gratitude. Both treatments led to reductions in stress, depression and anxiety and improved sleep and life satisfaction among participants. Both groups also showed less dysfunctional parent-child interaction. MBSR parents saw the most improvement.

More stress, advanced ageing, poorer antibody response

“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 noted. “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 ageing 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.”

Source: MedicalNewsToday, Vanderbilt University, Pediatrics

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