Being a teenager and parenting one are two different sides of a coin. However, when we factor in intellectual disabilities or an autism diagnosis, one will likely undergo many changes and challenges within his/her family.
Jan Blacher, an autism subject matter expert and a renowned professor from the University of California, says, “The visible effects of autism and similar disorders are largely understudied while professionals pass on the blame to mothers of autistic children for them being diagnosed with the disorder.”
From the start of the early 50’s, doctors relied on Leo Kanner’s theory of the “refrigerator mother” as evidence to argue that missing maternity warmth could be the major reason behind the autism spectrum. The theory continued to gain ground until the mid 60’s when Bernard Rimland, a prominent psychiatrist, along with others, began to discredit the ongoing theory.
In the following years, the idea of autism being a neurological development was popularized.
Up to present times, the quest to find autism-related genes continues while families are seeing no major advancements regarding the overall health of their loved ones diagnosed with autism.
Researchers note that mothers are hit especially hard by families who have cases of autism diagnoses, which Baker and Blacher refer to as “Collateral Effects.”
A recent study published its surveyed results highlighting the higher amounts of stress and other related psychological symptoms among mothers of autistic teens. The mothers of teens with a history of typical development suffer from greater levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Autistic children who showed clinical levels of disruptive behavioral disorders had their mothers reporting extreme levels of depressive symptoms.
To dig deeper and gain better insights, Baker and Blacher ran a survey involving 160 families who had 13-year-old teens diagnosed with autism. Of these, 84 of them were diagnosed with autism while the other 28 were noted to have ID.
Blacher, who works with autistic kids irrespective of their ages, says, “This study is special as it has a niche focus on teens of the same age.”
“Other studies regularly involve children at varying ages which lessens the impact of the undertaken study,” explains Blacher. She further continues, “To lessen this variance impact, we ended eliminating the factors of age variance.”
Baker and Blacher started their assessment survey by involving mothers and their teens with an in-person visit while later requesting the participants to complete a private questionnaire. The research team explains this as being an important step to further gain unique insights into an individual’s underlying condition.
Mothers who had children with autism were noted to score the highest on the distress indicators while observing a significant increase in their psychological and distress level indicators.
The presence of more than one clinical level behavioral disorder was further seen to aggravate parenting-related stress levels and other related psychological symptoms.
One of the commonly occurring disruptive behavioral disorders was seen to be ADHD. Nevertheless, autistic children showed other signs of ODD or oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. The disorders that were seen to cause more disruptions to the parents’ lives were seen to involve things such as hitting, arguing, screaming at the top of his/her voice, not following rules, breaking things or lashing out.
“Nevertheless, when one is faced with stressful situations such as these, optimism gains an important prominence,” says Blacher.
The authors conclude, “Mothers who have higher levels of optimism are better able to weather stress levels while being at an added advantage of being mentally prepared to face the challenges ahead.”