Stress on Autism Families

Stress – something parents in general are all too familiar with. There is the physical stress from carpools, preparing meals, bathing, homework, shopping, and so on. This is compounded by such psychological stressors as parent-child conflicts, not having enough time to complete responsibilities and concern regarding a child’s well-being. For Autism families unique stressors are added. There is no shortage of challenges of autism that affect the kids and their families.

Sources of Stress for Parents

Deficits and Behaviors of Autism

Research indicates that parents of children with autism experience greater stress than parents of children with intellectual disabilities and Down Syndrome. (Holroyd & McArthur, 1976; Donovan, 1988). 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). Stereotypic and compulsive behaviors concern parents since they appear peculiar and interfere with functioning and learning. If a child has deficits in social skills, such as the lack of appropriate play, stress may be increased for families. Individuals lacking appropriate leisure skills often require constant structure of their time, a task not feasible to accomplish in the home environment.

Finally, many 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 issues and behaviors are physically exhausting for families and emotionally draining. For families of children on the autism spectrum this can be a particular challenge. Scheduled dinner times may not be successful due to the child’s inability to sit appropriately for extended periods of time. Bedtime routines can be interrupted by difficulties sleeping. Maladaptive behaviors may prevent families from attending events together. For example, Mom might have to stay home while Dad takes the sibling to his/her soccer 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 their extreme parenting demands and the lack of qualified staff to watch a child with autism in their absence.

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Bedtime is usually a challenge for kids especially those with challenges like Autism. One of the best ways to get children into a routine for bedtime is to read a book, especially if that book teaches relaxation techniques with enchanting stories that keep the child’s interest. Lori Lite, founder of Stress Free Kids and author of a line of books and CDs that help kids manage stress and anxiety while promoting a peaceful sleep suggests reading one of her titles to your child. She also suggests following that up with using her CD to further relax your child and help them drift off to sleep. Children ages 6-12 will benefit from the Indigo Ocean Dreams books and CDs now in a cost saving package. For families with younger children as well she suggested the Indigo Ocean Dreams Package PLUS incorporating books and CDs for ages 4 and up.


This section was contributed by Adrianne Horowitz, CSW, Director of Family Services for the Eden II Programs for Autistic Children.