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Autism: Family Life - Tactics for Getting Normal Again
Autism continuing education psychology CEUs

Section 11
Stress & Lack of Social Support in Mothers of Children with Autism

CEU Question 11 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Autism
Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs

Effects of Social Support
Research addressing the effects of social support on family stress can be grouped into two categories: (a) research assessing the effects of informal support and (b) research assessing the effects of formal support. Bristol and Schopler (1983) defined formal support as assistance that is social, psychological, physical, or financial and is provided either for free or in exchange for a fee through an organized group or agency. They defined informal support as a network that may include the immediate and extended family, friends, neighbors, and other parents of children with disabilities. Two studies have examined the effects of informal support on maternal stress.

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
Parent-and Child-Related Interventions
. Stress and depression are two of the critical variables that lead mothers of children with autism to seek social support (Sharpley et al., 1997; Wolf et al., 1989). Effective interventions should both remediate the characteristics of autism in the child and alleviate the stress level of the parent by providing them access to sources of social support and parent training programs. Training is needed to help parents cope with the child's challenging characteristics. Behavior management issues and cognitive limitations are among the greatest stress-inducing child variables for the parent (Bristol, 1979; Salisbury, 1990); therefore, interventions geared toward the child should also help the parent address behavior management concerns in the home and community, and ways to cope with children who possess uneven patterns of cognitive development.

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.
- Boyd, Brian, Examining the relationship between stress and lack of social support in mothers of children with autism, Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities, Winter 2002, Vol. 17, Issue 4.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #4
The preceding section contained information about stress and lack of social support in mothers of children with autism. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 11
According to Bristol's study, what are the most important sources of support for mothers that led to lower stress levels? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

 
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Anxiety in 3- to 7-year-old children with autism spectrum disorder seeking treatment for disruptive behavior
Autism, Ahead of Print.
Anxiety is a common and impairing problem in children with autism spectrum disorder, but little is known about it in preschool children with autism spectrum disorder. This article reports on the characteristics of anxiety symptoms in young children with autism spectrum disorder using a parent-completed rating scale. One hundred and eighty children (age 3–7 years) participated in a clinical trial of parent training for disruptive behaviors. Anxiety was measured as part of pre-treatment subject characterization with 16 items from the Early Childhood Inventory, a parent-completed scale on child psychiatric symptoms. Parents also completed other measures of behavioral problems. Sixty-seven percent of children were rated by their parents as having two or more clinically significant symptoms of anxiety. There were no differences in the Early Childhood Inventory anxiety severity scores of children with IQ < 70 and those with ⩾70. Higher levels of anxiety were associated with severity of oppositional defiant behavior and social disability. Anxiety symptoms are common in preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder. These findings are consistent with earlier work in school-age children with autism spectrum disorder. There were no differences in anxiety between children with IQ below 70 and those with IQ of 70 and above. Social withdrawal and oppositional behavior were associated with anxiety in young children with autism spectrum disorder.
Obesity, physical activity, and sedentary behaviors in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder compared with typically developing peers
Autism, Ahead of Print.
Decreased engagement in beneficial physical activity and increased levels of sedentary behavior and unhealthy weight are a continued public health concern in adolescents. Adolescents with autism spectrum disorder may be at an increased risk compared with their typically developing peers. Weekly physical activity, sedentary behavior, and body mass index classification were compared among adolescents with and without autism spectrum disorder. Analyses included 33,865 adolescents (autism spectrum disorder, n = 1036) from the 2016–2017 National Survey of Children’s Health (United States). After adjustment for covariates, adolescents with autism spectrum disorder were found to engage in less physical activity and were more likely to be overweight and obese compared with their typically developing peers (p’s < 0.05). As parent-reported autism spectrum disorder severity increased, the adjusted odds of being overweight and obese significantly increased and physical activity participation decreased (p-for-trends < 0.001). The findings suggest there is a need for targeted programs to decrease unhealthy weight status and support physical activity opportunities for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder across the severity spectrum.
Scanpath similarity measure reveals not only a decreased social preference, but also an increased nonsocial preference in individuals with autism
Autism, Ahead of Print.
We compared scanpath similarity in response to repeated presentations of social and nonsocial images representing natural scenes in a sample of 30 participants with autism spectrum disorder and 32 matched typically developing individuals. We used scanpath similarity (calculated using ScanMatch) as a novel measure of attentional bias or preference, which constrains eye-movement patterns by directing attention to specific visual or semantic features of the image. We found that, compared with the control group, scanpath similarity of participants with autism was significantly higher in response to nonsocial images, and significantly lower in response to social images. Moreover, scanpaths of participants with autism were more similar to scanpaths of other participants with autism in response to nonsocial images, and less similar in response to social images. Finally, we also found that in response to nonsocial images, scanpath similarity of participants with autism did not decline with stimulus repetition to the same extent as in the control group, which suggests more perseverative attention in the autism spectrum disorder group. These results show a preferential fixation on certain elements of social stimuli in typically developing individuals compared with individuals with autism, and on certain elements of nonsocial stimuli in the autism spectrum disorder group, compared with the typically developing group.
Psychosocial deficits across autism and schizotypal spectra are interactively modulated by excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission
Autism, Ahead of Print.
Continued human and animal research has strengthened evidence for aberrant excitatory–inhibitory neural processes underlying autism and schizophrenia spectrum disorder psychopathology, particularly psychosocial functioning, in clinical and nonclinical populations. We investigated the extent to which autistic traits and schizotypal dimensions were modulated by the interactive relationship between excitatory glutamate and inhibitory GABA neurotransmitter concentrations in the social processing area of the superior temporal cortex using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. In total, 38 non-clinical participants (20 females; age range = 18–35 years, mean (standard deviation) = 23.22 (5.52)) completed the autism spectrum quotient and schizotypal personality questionnaire, and underwent proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy to quantify glutamate and GABA concentrations in the right and left superior temporal cortex. Regression analyses revealed that glutamate and GABA interactively modulated autistic social skills and schizotypal interpersonal features (pcorr < 0.05), such that those with high right superior temporal cortex glutamate but low GABA concentrations exhibited poorer social and interpersonal skills. These findings evidence an excitation–inhibition imbalance that is specific to psychosocial features across the autism and schizophrenia spectra.
Gender differences in self-reported camouflaging in autistic and non-autistic adults
Autism, Ahead of Print.
Social camouflaging describes the use of strategies to compensate for and mask autistic characteristics during social interactions. A newly developed self-reported measure of camouflaging (Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire) was used in an online survey to measure gender differences in autistic (n = 306) and non-autistic adults (n = 472) without intellectual disability for the first time. Controlling for age and autistic-like traits, an interaction between gender and diagnostic status was found: autistic females demonstrated higher total camouflaging scores than autistic males (partial η2 = 0.08), but there was no camouflaging gender difference for non-autistic people. Autistic females scored higher than males on two of three Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire subscales: Masking (partial η2 = 0.05) and Assimilation (partial η2 = 0.06), but not on the Compensation subscale. No differences were found between non-autistic males and females on any subscale. No differences were found between non-binary individuals and other genders in either autistic or non-autistic groups, although samples were underpowered. These findings support previous observations of greater camouflaging in autistic females than males and demonstrate for the first time no self-reported gender difference in non-autistic adults.

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