|Autism and Parenting Stress
Presently more parents are rearing children with autism than ever before. Parenting a child with autism is an
extraordinary challenge and can be extremely stressful understanding issues that contribute to parental
pressure is of greatest importance. In comparison to parents of typically developing children, parents raising
children with disabilities experience more parenting stress and have higher rates of depression. Even among
parents raising children with disabilities, parents of children with autism report significantly higher levels of
The primary cause of these results may be that parenting stress is associated with the frequency and extent
of the child’s stereotypical behavior such as social phobia, compulsive behavior, and communication
difficulties. Children with autism often engage in unusual behaviors, have heightened sensory and transition
difficulties. Presented the unique stresses and challenges inherited in parenting a child with autism,
maintaining a positive sense of parenting capability may be extremely difficult. Too often parents are not
advised through the complicated process of coming to terms with their child’s diagnosis.
Knowledge of the main deficits in autism (i.e., communication, social relating), characteristic stereotypes,
origin of autism, and effective intervention methods may also alleviate thoughts about parental competence.
Stereotypic and compulsive behaviors concern parents since they appear peculiar and interfere with
functioning and learning. If a child has impairments in social skills, such as the lack of appropriate play,
stress may be increased for families. Children with autism often require constant structure of their time, an
unrealistic task to achieve in the home environment.
Autism Behaviors and Stress
In a recent study, mothers of children with autism reported more difficulty understanding their children’s
behaviors than mothers of typically developing children. An individual with autism may not express their
basic wants or needs in a manner that we would expect. Therefore, parents are left playing a guessing game.
Is the child crying because he/she is thirsty, hungry, or sick? When parents cannot determine their child's
needs, both are left feeling frustrated. The child's frustration can lead to aggressive or self-injurious
behaviors that threaten their safety and the safety of other family members (e.g., siblings). Families struggle
with the additional challenges of getting their child to sleep through the night or eat a wider variety of foods.
All of these demands and behaviors are physically exhausting for families and emotionally draining.
For families of children on the autism spectrum meals can be a hassle. Scheduled dinner times may not be
pleasant due to the child's inability to sit appropriately for lengthen periods of time. Bedtime routines can be
interrupted by difficulties sleeping. Autistic behaviors may prevent families from attending events together.
For example, Mom might have to stay home while Dad takes the sibling to his/her soft ball game. Not being
able to do things as a family can impact the marital relationship. In addition, spouses often cannot spend time
alone due to the extreme parenting obligations and the lack of qualified caregivers to watch a child with
Concerns over Future Care-giving
One of the most significant sources of stress is the concern regarding future care-giving. Parents know that
they provide their child with exceptional care; they fear that no one will take care of their child like they do.
There may also be no other family members willing or capable of accomplishing this task. Even though
parents try to put off thinking about the future, these thoughts and worries are still constantly present.
Feelings of Isolation from Society
Taking an individual with autism out into the community can be a cause of stress for parents. People may
stare, make comments or fail to understand any mishaps or behaviors that may occur. For example,
individuals with autism have been seen taking a stranger's food right off his/her plate. As a result of these
potential experiences, families often feel uncomfortable taking their child to the homes of friends or relatives.
This makes holidays a particularly difficult time for these families. Feeling like they cannot socialize or relate
to others, parents of children with autism may experience a sense of isolation from their friends, relatives
Feelings of Grief
Parents of children with autism are grieving the loss of the "typical" child that they expected to have. In
addition, parents are grieving the loss of lifestyle that they expected for themselves and their family. The
feelings of grief that parents experience can be an additional cause of stress due to its ongoing nature.
Current theories of grief suggest that parents of children with developmental disabilities experience episodes
of grief throughout the life cycle as different events (e.g., birthdays, holidays, and unending care-giving)
trigger grief reactions. Experiencing persistent sorrow is a psychological stressor that can be frustrating,
confusing and depressing.
Having a child with autism can exhaust a family's resources due to expenses such as evaluations, home
programs, and various therapies. The care-giving demands of raising a child with autism may lead one
parent to give up his or her job, making financial strains more intense by only having one income to support
all of the family’s needs.
Take Time for Yourself and Other Family Members
In order to avoid distress, parents must make time for themselves. Parents often respond to this suggestion
by saying that they don't have any available time. Parents, just like individuals with autism, need rewards in
order to be motivated. Parents who have children with autism have even more of a need to reward
themselves because parenting their child can be frustrating and stressful.
In addition to rewarding themselves, family members need to reward one another. Spouses need to
acknowledge the hard work that each is achieving. Also, remember to thank siblings for watching or helping
out their brothers and sisters. It is also important that spouses try to spend some time alone. Again, the
quantity of time is not as important as the quality. This may include watching television together when the
children are asleep, going out to dinner, or meeting for lunch when the children are in school.
Families may also want to occasionally engage in activities without the individual with autism. This may
include mom, dad and the siblings going to the movies together. Often families feel guilty not including the
individual with autism, but everyone deserves to enjoy time together that is not threatened by the burdens of
Meet Other Families with an Autistic Children
It gives us comfort to know that we are not the only ones experiencing a stressful situation. In addition, one
can get the most useful advice from others facing similar challenges and using similar services and supports.
Support groups for parents, siblings and grandparents are available through educational programs, parent
resource centers, local Autism Society of America chapters and Developmental Disabilities Offices. In
addition, there are now online supports available for family members.
• Set realistic goals and appropriate responsibility.
• Break large tasks into small ones.
• Confide in someone instead of being alone and reserved.
• Participate in activities that may make you feel better like exercise or a movie.
• Expect your mood to improve gradually.
• Postpone important decisions until the stress has subsided.
• Accept help from your spouse, family and friends.