Around 80,000 people in New Zealand have autism, and families who receive this diagnosis for one of their children can find that their stress levels increase as they are called upon to consider factors like education, work, programmes and therapies.
Beyond the diagnosis, chronic caregiving can cause stress for parents, with researchers at Concordia University stating that parents of children with autism are also more likely to have depression than parents of typically developing children. There is, however, something that can improve parental health and reduce stress: social support – which is necessary both in the short and long-term.
Stress levels of parents with autistic children
In one study, researchers obtained blood samples from a group of healthy parents of children with autism. The parents were also asked to answer questions on the different types of social support they had (both formal and informal). They were also asked to rate the state of their own health, indicate their stress levels, etc. The results indicated that parents who had greater informal social support (ie provided by friends and family as opposed to social services or doctors) had lower inflammation, and that those who had strong formal support also had lower inflammation and better self-rated health.
Social support and better access to resources
Social support aids parents in many ways, from the most practical (e.g. chores and transport to therapy or school) to more theoretical means. Being in touch with other parents with autistic children is an effective way of ensuring access to vital resources for children with autism. These range from the latest findings and research to recommendations on effective programs or professionals nearby. As stated in a study published in the American Journal of Sociology, social interaction can result in earlier diagnosis of a child, which is important so that children can get the help they need early.
The impact of stress gets worse as parents age
As parents become older, their immune system functions less efficiently, which is why continued support is key. Keeping inflammation down is important because this condition is linked to serious diseases – including heart disease, some types of cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Of course, keeping stress down is just one way of battling inflammation. A healthy, Mediterranean-based diet that is high in fibre-rich fruits and vegetables has also been found to be anti-inflammatory.
Social support is particularly important for families that are struggling financially
As found in research from Family Relations, parents in low-income environments are more likely to face depression when they are low on social support. In addition to consulting health professionals for recommendations to official networks and groups, parents can also consider joining community groups, churches, sports-related groups, etc. Doing so, said researchers, can form a protective barrier against the kind of thought patterns that can lead to depression.
Parents of children with autism should aim to form part of support networks. This is the case throughout their child’s lifetime. Older parents in particular, who are more prone to illness, can benefit greatly from being a vital part of their local communities.
Do you have experience of caring for a child with autism?
This article was written by Sally Sykes with additional content by Kidspot NZ. Sally is a freelance writer who left her corporate job for a life of freedom. She regularly travels with her family and absolutely loves camping in the great outdoors.