Upfront

Mothering a child with autism may be more stressful than mothering one with developmental delays, concludes a July study published online in Autism.

Annette Estes, PhD, associate director of the University of Washington Autism Center in Seattle and the study's lead author, assembled 73 mothers of 3-and-a-half-year-old children, with either autism or developmental delays. Estes asked the mothers about their stress related to parenting; general stress not directly related to parenting; behavioral problems in their children; and degree of difficulty doing day-to-day tasks for their children, such as dressing them and getting them to school.

"We were wondering what might be the most difficult part for parents," Estes says.

Parents of children with autism reported higher levels of stress both related to parenting and in their daily lives than parents of developmentally delayed children. What surprised Estes was that the children's problematic behaviors, such as irritability, crying, agitation and inappropriate speech were the most stressful for the mother, rather than the daily caring tasks, which the mothers were able to cope with.

Estes says her results point to the fact that intervening early to improve children's behavior can spare parents a lot of stress, improving quality of life for them and their children. The study is part of a growing awareness that autism interventions should not so narrowly focus on the individual with the disease, she says.

"Autism impacts the whole family and we need to expand our scope," Estes says.

—M. Price