Feet of mom and child on seesaw

Peer programs boost moms of kids with autism

Peer-led interventions that target parents’ well-being can significantly reduce stress, depression, and anxiety among mothers of children with disabilities, new research suggests.

For a new study, researchers examined two treatment programs in a large number of primary caregivers of a child with a disability. Participants in both groups experienced improvements in mental health, sleep, and overall life satisfaction and showed less dysfunctional parent-child interactions.

“The well-being of this population is critically important because, compared to parents of typically developing children, parents of children with developmental disabilities experience substantially higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and as they age, physical and medical problems,” says lead author Elisabeth Dykens, professor of psychology and human development, pediatrics, and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University.

“Add to this the high prevalence of developmental disabilities—about one in five children—and the fact that most adult children with intellectual disabilities remain at home with aging parents, we have a looming public health problem on our hands.”

For a new study, published in Pediatrics, nearly 250 mothers of children with autism or other disabilities were randomized into one of two programs: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Positive Adult Development (PAD). The MBSR approach is more physical, emphasizing breathing exercises, deep belly breathing, meditation, and gentle movement. The PAD approach is more cognitive and uses exercises such as practicing gratitude.

Less anxiety, better sleep

Supervised peer mentors, all mothers of children with disabilities, received four months of training on the intervention curriculum, the role of a mentor, and research ethics. The peer mentors led six weeks of group treatments in 1.5-hour weekly sessions with the research participants.

At baseline, 85 percent of participants had significantly elevated stress, 48 percent were clinically depressed, and 41 percent had anxiety disorders.

Both the MBSR and PAD treatments led to significant reductions in stress, depression, and anxiety and improved sleep and life satisfaction among participants, and mothers in both treatments also showed fewer dysfunctional parent-child interactions.

While mothers in the MBSR treatment saw the greatest improvements, participants in both treatments continued to improve during follow-up, and improvements in other areas were sustained up to six months after treatment.

Shorter telomeres

“Our research and findings from other labs indicate that many mothers of children with disabilities have a blunted cortisol response, indicative of chronic stress,” Dykens says. “Compared to mothers in control groups, this population mounts a poorer antibody response to influenza vaccinations, suggesting a reduced ability to fight both bacterial and viral infections.

“They also have shorter telomeres, associated with an advanced cellular aging process, and have poorer sleep quality, which can have deleterious health effects. All of this results in parents who are less available to manage their child’s special needs or challenging behaviors.”

Dukens and colleagues will next examine how fathers fared in the interventions and the health status and medical conditions in mothers. They will also study the differences in civilian versus military parents of children with developmental disabilities.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, and the National Institute of Mental Health funded the study.

Source: Vanderbilt University