Peer-Led Interventions Can Help Mothers of Autistic Children

Parents of children with autism have seen great benefits from peer-led interventions and support programs.
(photo: burrellautismcenter.com)

According to researchers at Vanderbilt University, mothers of children with autism can experience several significant benefits from attending a class or program that is focused on reducing their stress. These classes, led by other mothers, were shown to reduce previously high levels of stress, as well as anxiety and depression in these women. The classes also improved the interactions that the mothers have with their children.

Research has shown that mothers of children with autism typically experience high levels of stress, as well as are more prone to depression and more vulnerable to developing other illnesses. As a result, depression and stress can decrease a mother’s ability to effectively participate in the home interventions that help the child develop skills and improve their behavior. Parents of children with autism dedicate their time and energy to focus on their child, causing stress to themselves, and allowing their own health to take a backseat.

This study was the first of its kind, as it examined two different treatment programs for a large number of primary caregivers of children with autism. Lead author of the study, Dr. Elisabeth Dykens, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development states, “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.”

In an effort to help reduce the stress in mothers with autism, researchers arranged training for their peers, volunteer moms, who each ran stress-reduction classes for two different programs. The programs involved one class each week, for six weeks, with each class running the duration of an hour and a half. The first program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, focused on mindfulness training, as well as physical exercises such as deep breathing, and meditation. The other program, Positive Adult Development, focused on dealing with negative feelings, such as worry, or guilt, and changing the mother’s way of thinking through positive psychology. Mothers built various character strengths by using mental exercises that focus on optimism and gratitude. Researchers assigned nearly 250 mothers to either of the programs, at random.

Both of these peer-led interventions enabled the mothers to truly relax and develop a new positive way of thinking. The evaluations that were conducted after the study show that the mothers had lower levels of stress, less anxiety, improved sleep, and more life satisfaction. In addition, they had less negative or unhelpful interactions with their children. Furthermore, participants in both treatments continued to improve throughout follow-ups, and improvements in multiple areas of their lives were sustained up to six months after the program began.

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