New Study Helps with Stress Reduction for Mothers of Kids with Autism

Mother and autistic childA new study has shown that programs teaching “mindfulness” and “positive psychology” are helping mothers of children with autism reduce their stress, anxiety, and depression.

The study took a group of 243 mothers of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities and randomized them into mindfulness-based stress reduction, or positive adult development (psychology) groups. Trained and supervised peer mentors led six weeks of group treatments, and the participants were assessed six times before, during, and up to six months after treatment.

According to Elizabeth Dykens, who led the study, mindfulness helps people focus on the present moment in a non-judgmental way, doing so through deep belly breathing, gentle movements like yoga, and meditation. The positive adult development group was more focused on thoughts, including practicing gratitude and forgiveness and defining one’s own strengths.

Most services for such families focus on the child, but improving the mental health of the parents is likely to make them better caregivers that, in turn, could improve their child’s development.

Dykens, an associate director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, says, “There are literally decades of studies that have described the high levels of stress and distress, anxiety and depressive symptoms that moms and dads of children with developmental disabilities suffer, and I didn’t want to describe anymore, I wanted to do something about it.”

Mothers of children on the autism spectrum have a very high caregiver burden. These programs aim to “counteract the anger or disappointment or feelings of guilt or sadness families often experience as they try to deal with the kids’ challenging behavior and also work with the systems that are involved in providing care,” Dykens says.

“Studies have been done to show that parents of children with autism often suffer with symptoms similar to PTSD,” says Kelly Clark, Chief-Mom-In-Charge at and mother of a small child with autism. “In addition to the enormous amounts of stress, we are often dealing with sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep coupled with stress can lead to depression, anxiety, and even physical illness.”

By the end of their six weeks of treatment, both groups showed significant reductions in stress, depression, and anxiety levels, starting with sharp drops after just two weeks. Both groups also reported increased sleep and life satisfaction, both of which will affect the patients’ overall health.

The separate groups did differ in specific results. Mothers in the mindfulness group experienced greater improvements in anxiety, depression, sleep, and well-being, as well as stronger responses in the categories in anxiety and depression. Some speculate that this is a result of the immediacy of physical reaction promoted by the mindfulness approach.

Mothers in the positive psychology group, however, reported greater reductions in depression and improvements in life satisfaction over the follow-up period, compared to the mindfulness group. Either way, both groups certainly showed very promising improvements.

Granted, there was no “control” group of mothers who received no treatment, which would offer a fair and accurate comparison. But in general, mothers of children with disabilities do not really grow less depressed over time, rather, research shows they experience more health and mental health problems with age.

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