Depression in Birthing Parents of Autistic Children

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.

While data on trans people who have given birth is slim, one can presume those who have given birth to autistic children may also experience depression until trans family planning research expands.

Portrait of a mother with daughter Autism and Down Syndrome in daily lives
athima tongloom / Getty Images

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 increase the risk of experiencing depression. And in some cases, individual counseling for could be tremendously helpful.

But while feelings of guilt and inadequacy certainly are at play for many parents or guardians, 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. These examples could increase the risk of experiencing depression:

  • Parents or guardians 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.
  • It can be tough to engage in social activities with a child on the autism spectrum.
  • It can be expensive to treat a child on the autism spectrum. Some families go into debt to support therapies that are not paid for by insurance.
  • A parent or guardian with a child on the autism spectrum may wind up quitting jobs they enjoy (and the income they need or want) in order to care for a child on the spectrum.
  • Many children with autism have a tough time sleeping and keep their parents or guardians awake all night.
  • Parents or guardians 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.
  • As children with autism grow older, parents or guardians often face retirement with full personal and financial responsibility for an adult child who depends on them for everything.

If experiencing symptoms of depression, see a primary care provider or a mental health provider. Be sure to also try asking a trusted friend or relative to monitor you for these signs and encourage seeking support if they occur.

Coping With the Emotional Strain of Autism

What is a parent or guardian 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 or guardians cope better with the emotional strain.

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

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Olsson MB, Hwang CP. Depression in mothers and fathers of children with intellectual disability. J Intellect Disabil Res. 2001;45(Pt 6):535-43. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2788.2001.00372.x

  2. Duarte CS, Bordin IA, Yazigi L, Mooney J. Factors associated with stress in mothers of children with autism. Autism. 2005;9(4):416-27. doi:10.1177/1362361305056081

Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.