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Reducing Stress, Depression and Anxiety in Mothers of Kids with Autism

Study shows clear benefits to mom-led stress-reduction classes; mindfulness training produces greatest benefits
July 21, 2014


Researchers at Vanderbilt University – a part of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network  – report that mothers of children with autism benefit significantly from weekly stress-reduction classes led by other mothers.

The classes reduced previously high levels of personal stress, anxiety and depression and improved the moms’ interactions with their children. The greatest benefits came with a simple “mindfulness” program involving self-relaxation techniques.

The study results appear today in Pediatrics.

Addressing a great unmet need
Previous research has clearly shown that mothers of children with autism experience more stress, depression and poorer health than is typical of mothers in general.

Similar reports from parents inspired Autism Speaks 100 Day Tool Kit, which helps families through the particularly stressful first three months after a child’s diagnosis. (The kit, which has been downloaded more than 100,000 times, is available free of charge here.)

Depression and high stress also decrease a mother’s ability to deliver the home interventions that are an important part of most autism behavioral programs. Yet there has been relatively little research on how best to ease parental stress related to having a child with autism.

Training moms to help moms
In the new study, the researchers arranged training for several volunteer moms, who each ran one of two types of stress-reduction classes. Both programs involved six weekly 1.5 hour classes. One focused on mindfulness training. This involves techniques such as deep breathing, guided relaxation and nonjudgmental monitoring of thoughts. The other program took a "positive psychology" approach. It emphasized dealing with feelings of guilt and worry by developing character strengths and using mental exercises focused on gratitude, forgiveness and optimism.

The researchers randomly assigned 243 mothers to attend one or the other program. Two-thirds of these moms (158) had a child with autism. The others had a child with another developmental disability or psychiatric disorder. 

Evaluations conducted during and after the study showed that the moms benefited from either program. They had lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, along with improved sleep and life satisfaction. They also had fewer “dysfunctional,” or unhelpful and negative, interactions with their children. However, the mothers who completed the mindfulness program showed greater improvements in depression, anxiety, sleep and life satisfaction.

“The parents of children with autism spend huge amounts of time and energy on their children's behalf and can be incredibly stressed both physically and emotionally. They are true heroes to their families,” comments Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. “This study shows the potential for simple interventions, led by other parents, to decrease that stress and improve parents’ mental health. In these and other ways, our AS-ATN centers are working with parents and families to find the best ways to support them and help ensure the best outcomes all around.”

Editor’s note: The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center has a number of free podcasts of guided mindfulness exercises. Download them here

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