Parenting, autism and stress

Parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder can experience greater parenting stress than parents of a typically developing child.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder affecting a child’s communication and behavior.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder affecting a child’s communication and behavior.

Being a parent can be stressful, and when you add to that, parenting an autistic child, the stress can feel overwhelming. Researchers agree that parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience greater parenting stress than parents of a typically developing child or a child with another disability.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 68 children experiences ASD. ASD is a developmental disorder affecting a child’s communication and behavior. Although it can be diagnosed at any age, since it is a developmental disorder, it is typically diagnosed after age 2.

The Interactive Autism Network recognizes some of the stresses of parenting a child with autism include dealing with some of the following:

  • Challenging behaviors such as hitting, throwing things, head-banging, repetitive behaviors
  • Poor sleeping and eating habits that are disruptive
  • Financial burdens due to fewer work hours as a result of extra medical/therapy appointments and having to pay for therapies that are not covered by health insurance or provided by schools.

In addition to parental stress, a study by Lee et al. (2008) found that families of children with autism spectrum disorder felt they had a larger childcare burden and they were more likely to quit a job due to childcare problems. They were also less likely to seek support through community services than families of children with ADD/ADHD or typically developing children.

A 2016 study by Chan and Lai looked at the psychological adjustment of siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder. Although parents did not find siblings to have more behavior or emotional problems, parents did express concern about sibling's peer relationships based on how involved (or not involved) they were in community-related events, such as school sports, clubs, etc.

With all these things in mind, it is critical for families to find ways to build resiliency and coping skills. A study by Greeff and Van Der Walt (2010) study recommends the following:

  • Improve the quality of family communication – create a healthy environment of open communication.
  • Maintain healthy parental relationships that include commitment and flexibility.
  • Develop healthy external coping strategies – like regular physical exercise, finding reliable respite care and support groups.  
  • Develop healthy internal coping strategies – like mindfulness and maintaining a positive attitude and a healthy sense of humor.
  • Parents increasing knowledge of autism and ways to help their child.
  • Have consistent family routines including planning ways to have fun together.
  • Assure adult alone time for parents in order to maintain physical and mental health.

Michigan State University Extension provides a program called Powerful Tools for Caregivers. This six-week series teaches strategies for caregivers to take better care of themselves while caring for a child with special health or behavior needs. By learning to take better care of our own physical, emotional, and financial needs, we are better equipped to care for others. This series is taught in a group format for optimum interaction and support from others. To learn about the Powerful Tools for Caregivers program in Michigan contact your local MSU Extension office.

For more information and support, consider the following:

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