Depression in Mothers of Autistic Children

Woman looking sad on couch

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A study conducted at the University of North Carolina suggests that "Mothers of children with autism may be prone to depression if they feel responsible for the cause or outcome of their child's disorder...". Fifty percent of mothers with children with autism had elevated depression scores, compared to 15 percent to 21 percent in the other groups. Single mothers of children with disabilities were found to be more vulnerable to severe depression than mothers living with a partner.

Why Are Moms of Autistic Kids More Prone to Depression?

Dr. Dan Gottlieb of Philadelphia's NPR station WHYY commented on the study. To paraphrase, he suggested that mothers who feel they can never do enough for their child with autism are likely to suffer from depression.

Certainly, that feeling of never being good enough could lead to depression. And in some cases, individual counseling for moms could be tremendously helpful.

But while feelings of guilt and inadequacy certainly are at play for many parents, there's much more to the story. Families, even those with children at the "upper" end of the autism spectrum, cope with many other significant issues that could lead, at the very least, to frustration, anger, irritability, anxiety and more. For example:

  • Parents receiving a diagnosis of autism are also coping with the loss of many of their expectations of parenthood. At the same time, they are losing out on the "parent club" that may have sustained them—everything from exchanging playdates and childcare with neighbors to coaching the local ball team. That's pretty darned depressing.
  • It can be tough to engage in normal social activity with a child on the autism spectrum. Social isolation is known to lead to depression.
  • It can be expensive to treat a child on the autism spectrum. Many families go into debt to support therapies that are not paid for by insurance. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and anger.
  • Often, mothers with children on the autism spectrum wind up quitting jobs they enjoy (and the income they need or want) in order to care for a child on the spectrum. This could certainly lead to depression.
  • Many children with autism have a tough time sleeping and keep their parents awake all night. Exhaustion can lead to depression.
  • Parents who have to battle the school districts and state mental health agencies for any type of appropriate services are almost certain to run into issues and circumstances which are unacceptable, but over which they have little control. This is certainly depressing.
  • As children with autism grow older, parents often face "retirement" with full personal and financial responsibility for an adult child who depends on them for everything. This can be quite depressing.

In short, having a child with autism can, indeed, lead to depression, but the reasons are many and complex. No matter how optimistic or upbeat a parent is, they may be unable to cheer up in the face of exhaustion, bankruptcy, and isolation.

If you have symptoms of depression, see your primary care provider or a mental health provider. You may also ask a trusted friend or relative to monitor you for these signs and encourage you to get help if they occur.

Coping With the Emotional Strain of Autism

What is a parent to do in the face of so many negatives? There are a number of options for action. While none will change the underlying truth that autism is here to stay, many can help parents cope better with the emotional strain.

  • Find support among like-minded parents of children with autism.
  • Seek respite care, so that you and your partner can get away together for a well-deserved break.
  • Seek professional help from a therapist with experience working with families with special needs.
  • Try journaling to relieve your stress.
  • Lower your therapy costs by choosing low-cost, low-risk treatments for your child with autism.

Perhaps most important of all, know that you are doing the very best you can for your child with autism. Instead of tormenting yourselves with "what if's," take a moment out to enjoy your child.

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Article Sources

  • Depression in mothers and fathers of children with intellectual disability. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, Volume 45, Number 6, December 2001, pp. 535-543(9).
  • Factors associated with stress in mothers of children with autism. Autism, Vol. 9, No. 4, 416-427 (2005).
  • Stress profiles for mothers and fathers of children with autism. Psychol Rep. 1992 Dec;71(3 Pt 2):1272-4.