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Effects of Social Support
Informal Support.Bristol (1984) studied the psychosocial environment of families of children with autism to determine which family characteristics helped them to adapt to and cope with the child. Forty-five mothers were recruited from consecutive referrals to Division TEACCH, a statewide program for individuals with autism in North Carolina. In the study, 27 of the 45 children had formal diagnoses of autism, and 18 had significant communication and/or behavioral problems. The study found that mothers in the low-stress group reported greater perceived support. The study also found that for all mothers, the most important sources of support that led to lower stress levels were spouses, the mothers' relatives, and other parents of children with disabilities. Mothers who perceived greater support also reported significantly fewer depressive symptoms and happier marriages.
Similar reactions to informal supports were found by Herman and Thompson (1995) when they looked at factors related to families' perceptions of "internal resources" in rearing a child with a developmental disability. Similar to Bristol's (1984) use of "informal supports," "internal resources" was defined as resources that were within the family unit and did not need to be provided by external agents (e.g., special needs-related agencies). Participants were 415 families enrolled in the Cash Subsidy Program in Michigan for children with developmental disabilities (mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, and epilepsy). Both mothers and fathers felt that their partner--an internal resource--was the most helpful in providing social support, and more than half of the respondents reported that social support from more formal sources, such as parent groups, social clubs, and day care centers, was unavailable.
Formal Support. Peck (1998) evaluated the effects of a multicomponent intervention for families of young children with autism that was designed to reduce the families' stress. The intervention program applied a family systems model that targeted three goals: to increase families' (a) factual knowledge about autism, (b) knowledge of stress and mechanisms for coping with stress, and (c) awareness of social support and advocacy issues. Nineteen parents of children with autism ranging in age from 2 to 6 years were enrolled in the intervention program. However, only the nine parents who completed the program and provided the most data were included in the treatment group. The results of the study revealed that parents showed only a modest non-significant increase in factual knowledge, and the intervention was even less successful at increasing knowledge about stress management. Still the majority of parents reported positive experiences of attending the parent support group, which entailed meeting other parents of children with autism, discussing common concerns, and increasing the size of their support network. Bristol (1984) reported similar findings in regard to parent support groups in her study of the support needs of parents.
Krauss, Upshur, Shonkoff, and Hauser-Cram (1993) examined the effects of professionally organized parent support groups for 150 mothers of infants and toddlers with disabilities (Down syndrome, motor impairment, and developmental delay of unknown origin). The results of the study revealed both positive and negative effects of parent support groups. On the positive side, the intensity of participation by mothers in the parent support group was associated with significant gains in perceived support from other mothers in the group. Thus, the more the mothers attended, the more apt they were to perceive the support of other parents in the group as beneficial. On the negative side, greater intensity in attendance was also associated with mothers' elevated reports of the personal strain that the child placed on the family. Krauss and colleagues suspected that these results were due to group meetings' functioning as a place parents could go to discuss common concerns, one of which was the significant impact the child had on the family.
Bailey et al. (1999) examined the support needs of 200 Latino parents of children with developmental disabilities, living in diverse parts of the United States, to determine their needs and the social supports currently available to meet those needs. The results revealed that parents needed information, specifically, about the child's condition, how to obtain services for the child, and how to cope with the child's behavior. Mothers and fathers reported that they received the highest levels of support from family and formal support sources. Both were rated as being significantly more supportive than friends or other sources of informal support (e.g., churches, neighbors).
Overall, informal support appears to be a more effective stress buffer than formal support. One of the findings that pervaded the literature on both informal and formal supports was the benefit mothers derived from joining parent support groups. At group meetings they were able to freely share their concerns about their child. This finding leads to the necessary examination of how the use of social support then affects parenting.
On the basis of the reviewed literature, it appears that both parent and child characteristics play a role in parents' decision to seek social support. Two of the most significant child characteristics that lead mothers to pursue social support are cognitive limitations and behavior problems (Bristol, 1979; Salisbury, 1990). Children with autism who have more severe cognitive limitations place a greater degree of stress on their mothers because of their potential for long-term dependency. Robbins et al. (1991) found that even with intervention, mothers of children with significant cognitive limitations were more stressed than mothers whose children had less severe cognitive impairments. Behavior issues may present even more of a challenge than cognitive ones because of the potential public scrutiny parents face from society, and perhaps from family and friends as well (Sharpley et al., 1997). This may place external pressure on families to seek social support to help them address the child's behavior problems. Unfortunately, these child characteristics may also further limit the mothers' social support choices and force them to withdraw from potentially stress-reducing activities because of the time demands the child places on the family. Such dramatic situations often lead to higher levels of stress and depression in mothers.
Stress and depression are two of the main factors that lead mothers of children with autism to obtain social support. As a result of such stress, mothers first seek support from their family (in particular, their spouses). In general, informal support sources are more effective at reducing stress in mothers than formal support. The most useful source of formal support for mothers seems to be parent support groups, where they feel free to discuss their concerns about rearing a child with autism without fear of being scrutinized (Krauss et al., 1993). Mothers who receive social support relate better emotionally to their children and have more positive interactions with them (Dunst et al., 1986). When such support is not available, the result is often higher levels of stress and depression.
Still, the majority of studies reviewed in this article used parental self-reports to measure stress and parents' perception, and/or actual use, of social support. More objective research is needed to determine how specific child and parent characteristics interact to influence parents' decision to seek social support. For example, Bristol (1984) found that parents in the low-stressed group of her study had children who were perceived by their mothers to have less difficult personality characteristics and to be less socially obtrusive. In Bristol's study, the child's temperament and the mother's stress level interacted to influence the mother's decision to seek social support. Those mothers who believed their child was not temperamentally difficult also perceived greater support from informal sources. To provide more effective intervention services for parents of children with autism, professionals in the field must better understand how parent and child variables interact to affect parents' ability to seek out and obtain needed social support.
Researchers must further examine what types of social support would be most beneficial to parents. There is a paucity of research studies addressing the use of social support by parents of children with autism, which is reflected in the fact that no research was found for review after the year 1999. Research should also be conducted on the needs of fathers, so interventionists can better address their concerns as well. It is important to examine the needs of both parents because they are part of a family system, and often the actions of one parent affect those of the other. Dyson (1997) found that when fathers reported having more social support, a positive family relationship, and greater family emphasis on the personal growth of individual family members, mothers reported lower levels of stress.
Research is also needed to address the benefits of formal support for parents of children with autism. Current studies on formal support have produced mixed results (Krauss et al., 1993). Professionals in the field must understand how both informal and formal supports can be used to alleviate the consistent stress associated with parenting a child with autism. Finally, future studies should examine how the use of social support by parents translates into positive parenting behavior, increased knowledge of the child's condition, and improved family functioning. Through this knowledge the field will be better able to meet the needs of the family and help them cope with, accept, and adapt to parenting a child with autism.
Implications for Practice
Continuum of Supports. Herman and Thompson (1995) found that husbands provide some of the most beneficial support to mothers. However, because society has become so much more diverse and the definition of family so much broader, service providers should help mothers identify alternative types of informal support when there is no spouse present. So far service providers have a limited knowledge base of how to best support these parents. Parent support groups are an effective means of formal support for mothers of children with developmental disabilities, but even they have their flaws (Krauss et al., 1993; Peck, 1998). Service providers must be able to provide a continuum of support services to families, much like educators currently provide a continuum of alternative placements for their children. By providing parents with choices, it is more likely that they will find a support system that best meets their unique and diverse needs.
There are a number of reasons why professionals in the field must find more
effective methods of supporting families of children with autism. For one,
helping parents obtain needed social support may help to curtail the unnecessary
institutionalization of countless children. Raif and Rimmerman (1993) demonstrated
that high-stressed parents are more inclined to place their children out of
home. Also, mothers of children with autism are one of the most stressed parental
groups, and consistent and pervasive stress makes it even more difficult to
parent. Future research must continue to investigate why this particular group
of parents is so stressed and what types of social support best alleviate that
stress. Professionals have a responsibility to help these mothers better cope
with an already difficult, and potentially lifelong, situation.
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