Researchers evaluating a brief, problem-solving program found that it significantly reduced stress in mothers of children recently diagnosed with autism. Their report appears this week in JAMA Pediatrics.
The findings are heartening given earlier research showing high levels of parental stress and depression following a child’s autism diagnosis. In fact, similar reports from parents inspired Autism Speaks 100 Day Tool Kit, which guides families through the demanding first three months after a child’s diagnosis. (The tool kit, which has been downloaded more than 40,000 times, is available free of charge here.)
In the new study, Emily Feinberg and colleagues at Boston University School of Public Health enrolled 122 mothers of young children recently diagnosed with autism. Fifty-nine received six sessions (30 to 45 minutes each) of a cognitive-behavioral therapy called “problem solving education.”
In each session, mothers worked one-on-one with a therapist to identify a single, measurable problem. Using a workbook, they proceeded through a series of steps that involved goal setting, brainstorming and action planning.
For example, a mother who described feeling lonely might work with the therapist to identify an objective problem such as not being able to find someone to watch her child so she can go out with friends. The mother then sets an achievable goal and outlines steps to achieve it. For instance, she might decide to ask her sister to watch her child after he goes to bed. She also sets a time to call her sister.
To make the counseling practical, it was delivered in the home or clinic where the mothers received the usual parent-training in behavioral therapy for their child. For comparison, the other 63 mothers in the study received only the training on how to work with their children. After three months, the researchers used a series of questionnaires to assess the mothers’ stress levels and symptoms of depression.
According to the results, just 3.8 percent of the mothers who received the problem-solving education had high levels of parental stress at the end of the study. This compared with 29.3 percent of those who received only the usual instructions on how to work with their children. The mothers who received the problem solving education were also less likely to report symptoms of depression. But the difference wasn’t large enough to rule out a chance association.
“We know that mothers of children with autism can experience high levels of stress, so it’s important that family supports are part of any comprehensive treatment program,” comments child psychologist Lauren Elder, Autism Speaks assistant director for dissemination science. “This is a promising intervention that could be easily integrated into other treatment approaches,” she adds. “Hopefully follow-up research will show that its effects are maintained over time and that treatments can help a wide range of parents even many years after a diagnosis.” In the meantime, Dr. Elder encourages parents and caregivers who are feeling overwhelmed to seek out cognitive-behavioral therapy.