More help needed for parents

23 Feb, 2021
 
Daniel Shepherd
Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Daniel Shepherd

A new study examines the mental health of parents of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The majority of participants had reached clinical levels of psychiatric distress, in particular anxiety. And 70 percent can be classified as at risk of a psychiatric disorder.

The New Zealand study was led by Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Daniel Shepherd – a senior lecturer in the School of Clinical Sciences at AUT.

Shepherd says, ASD interventions and support services would be well served by placing the parent-child relationship at the centre of their efforts, as opposed to focusing on the child’s symptoms alone.

“Exclusively channelling resources into child symptom reduction may not be the best use of time and money. Targeting parent stress through better coping strategies may be an alternative means of improving child symptoms,” he says.

“The psychological wellbeing of parents has a direct effect on how they interact with their child, and a parent with mental health problems could exacerbate core symptoms or problem behaviours, and potentially undo the benefits of ASD interventions.”

Raising a child with ASD is associated with challenges that are considered detrimental to parental health and wellbeing, as well as increased rates of anxiety and depression.

This study is important because it shows that parenting stress mediates the relationship between the severity of child ASD symptoms and parent mental health, which underscores the argument that clinicians should be targeting parenting stress as part of any child’s intervention.

Broadly defined, parenting stress embodies feelings of distress or discomfort arising from demands associated with the role of parenting. Stress occurs when the perceived demands from the environment outweigh available resources.

More than 650 parents of a child with ASD were surveyed, with the assistance of Autism New Zealand and the Children’s Autism Foundation. Participants responded to questions about parent-and-child characteristics, child ASD severity, parenting stress, and parent mental health.

Researchers sought to determine the degree of mental health problems among parents of a child with ASD, and to identify parent-and-child-related factors that influence and may even predict these mental health problems.

The findings of the study, Stress and distress in New Zealand parents caring for a child with autism spectrum disorder, were recently published in the international journal Research in Developmental Disabilities.

Overall, the results showed that parent-and-child characteristics (such as age, gender, education and marital status) were poor predictors of parent mental health. Parenting stress, however, was found to be a significant predictor.

“Based on our data, we were unable to establish a set of risk and protective factors, because the negative experiences of raising a child with ASD are largely universal,” says Shepherd.

“Setting aside regional variations in the provision of formal support and cultural differences in the availability of informal support, ASD does not discriminate across parents when it comes to its negative effects on psychological wellbeing.”

Shepherd also states, that in his day-to-day contact with parents of children on the spectrum, “irrespective of the parenting challenges they are facing, it never ceases to amaze me just how much love these parents have for their child”.

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