Authors: Alice Weatherston
Increased stress levels and depression in parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) compared to those with more typically developing children are regularly reported. This caregiving stress can be associated with poorer physical health, pain and lower overall quality of life.
A new study from researchers at Concordia University (QC, Canada) has focused in on the role of social support in reducing this stress, with potential implications for patient management and health costs.
Lead authors Jean-Philippe Gouin and Erin T. Barker (Concordia University), and their colleagues, created a questionnaire for healthy parents of children with ASD in order to investigate potential links between social support and protection against stress-induced immune problems.
In total 56 parents took part in the study, filling out the questionnaire which covered their experiences of formal (health/social service professionals) and informal social support (friends/family), as well as personally-rated health and somatic symptoms.
In addition to completing the questionnaire, all participants also provided blood samples in order for the researcher to identify signs of inflammation, a good indicator of general health and risk of some diseases.
Findings indicated that lower levels of inflammation were associated with greater informal social support (friends/family) and that more exposure to formal support services was linked to both better self-rated health and lower inflammation.
Interestingly, greater benefit in terms of inflammation levels was indentified in parents with older affected children, indicating that support is essential, particularly as both the children, and parents, age.
“The impact of chronic caregiving stress on health likely becomes more pronounced as the parents are aging and their immune system responds less efficiently to challenges,” explained Gouin. “The need for formal and informal support thus remains high even as the child with ASD is becoming an adult.”
“Given the reciprocal relationship between child and parental health and well-being, supporting the parents in coping with chronic caregiving stress might not only improve the child’s outcome, but also may help maintain an optimal family environment for a longer period of time. Supporting the parents in providing care to their children with ASD might then represent a cost-effective strategy in the long-term.”
The research is now being continued by following families during their ASD-affected children’s last years of high school and the first few years after graduation, to further examine the effects on parental health. Currently 120 families are participating and the team plan to expand this by 100 more families over the next 2 years.