A recent study conducted at the University of North Carolina suggests that "Mothers of children with autism may be prone to depression if they feel responsible for the cause or outcome of their child's disorder...". This morning, Dr. Dan Gottlieb of Philadelphia's NPR station WHYY commented on the study. To paraphrase, he suggested that mothers who feel they can never do enough for their child with autism are likely to suffer from depression.
Certainly, that feeling of never being good enough could lead to depression. And in some cases, individual counseling for moms could be tremendously helpful.
But upon reflection, it seemed to me that the study may be missing the obvious. For many families, even those with children at the "upper" end of the autism spectrum, there are many other significant issues that could lead, at the very least, to frustration, anger, irritability, anxiety and more. For example --
- Parents receiving a diagnosis of autism are also coping with the loss of many of their expectations of parenthood. At the same time, they are losing out on the "parent club" that may have sustained them - everything from exchanging playdates and childcare with neighbors to coaching the local ball team. That's pretty darned depressing.
- It can be very tough to engage in normal social activity with a child on the autism spectrum. Social isolation is known to lead to depression.
- It can be very expensive to treat a child on the autism spectrum. Many families go into debt to support therapies that are not paid for by insurance. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and anger.
- Often, mothers with children on the autism spectrum wind up quitting jobs they enjoy (and income they need or want) in order to care for a child on the spectrum. This could certainly lead to depression.
- Many children with autism have a tough time sleeping, and keep their parents awake all night. Exhaustion can lead to depression.
- Parents who have to battle the school districts and state mental health agencies for any type of appropriate services are almost certain to run into issues and circumstances which are unacceptable - but over which they have little control. This is certainly depressing.
- As children with autism grow older, parents often face "retirement" with full personal and financial responsibility for an adult child who depends upon them for everything. This can be quite depressing.
In short, having a child with autism can, indeed, lead to depression - but the reasons are many and complex. Some can be managed by a change in attitude, but many are ultimately outside the parents' control. No matter how optimistic or upbeat a parent is, they may be unable to cheer up in the face of exhaustion, bankruptcy and isolation.
It seems to me that a lot of the issues parents face when raising a child with autism could be resolved by a combination of services that are very, very slowly becoming available in some areas. Appropriate educational services. Respite care. Group homes and appropriate, creative job training for autistic adults. Family counseling for parents and siblings of people on the autism spectrum. All of these could make the difference for parents coping with autism.
What are your thoughts on depression in mothers of children with autism?
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