For Parents of Teens With Autism, Optimism Buffers Stress

By Christina Elston

The fact that mothers of teens experience stress is no surprise to anyone who has parented – or even met – a teen. The fact that moms of teens who are on the autism spectrum or have intellectual disabilities face more stress than their peers with typically developing teens is also no great surprise.

Studies have shown that parents of teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (AD) or Intellectual Disabilities (ID) face stress on a par with those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, and a recent study out of UC Riverside reported similar findings. But that study, led by Jan Blacher, director of UC Riverside’s SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center, also found something else: moms with an optimistic outlook showed more resilience than those with a less-upbeat view.

Blacher has been working in the field for decades and says she has often been struck by the way some families “cope magnificently with a situation many would consider devastating.” This current study showed that there is something researchers call a “dose response” to optimism. The more optimistic a mom’s outlook, the less she suffered from significant depression, anxiety or the overall stress of having a child with ASD or ID. “A healthy does of optimism is protective against major stress, and moms who have a teen with both a disability and a significant behavioral or mental health problem sure need protection!” Blacher says.

In the study, published online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Blacher and her colleague Bruce L. Baker of UCLA surveyed 160 13-year-olds – some with ASD, some with ID and some typical – and their families. They later surveyed the parents about their children’s behavior and their own wellbeing. They also administered the Life Orientation Test to assess the parents’ optimism, their tendency to believe that good things were more likely to happen to them than bad things. The more optimistic moms suffered fewer negative effects from the stress of parenting a child with ASD or ID.

So what is optimism and how can we all get more of it? “It’s a world view. It’s something we’re theoretically born with,” Blacher says, adding that while genetics and family environment play a role, education and social class do not. However, that doesn’t mean parents without much optimism should lose hope.

“There’s evidence that we can change the way they think about the way things are,” says Blacher. The fast-growing field of “mindfulness,” including practices such as yoga and meditation, is one possible source of change. “Anything that keeps people present and controls their breathing and ability to keep troublesome thoughts at bay has proven to change people’s outlook on life,” says Blacher.

Clinicians and service providers also have a role to play. Blacher says that the focus has been on solving the problems of children with ASD and ID without much consideration of the collateral damage that these problems cause in parents. “We as professionals have neglected parents,” she says. Doctors, therapists and other service providers can start by painting a more optimistic picture for parents of their family’s situation and their child’s future.

Experts can also help parents by devoting greater resources to interventions for teens, rather than the current focus, which is almost solely on early childhood. For Blacher’s part, she is currently involved in producing a documentary film called “Autism Goes to College” with writer Jody Becker and writer/filmmaker Erik Linthorst. The hope is that seeing kids with autism thriving in higher education settings will offer parents of children (especially teens) with autism a ray of hope.

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