Helping parents cope with raising a child with autism

Parents with children recently diagnosed with autism often have a single-minded focus on the needs of their child.

Naomi Ekas

“When we talk to families, they’ll often say, ‘Oh, don’t waste your time on me. Focus on my kids,’” says Naomi Ekas, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Science & Engineering at TCU. “But studies have consistently demonstrated that mothers of children with autism report higher levels of stress and depressive symptoms. If you’re not doing well, you can’t parent and tackle daily life to the same extent you would if you were psychologically healthy.”

Ekas and her colleagues in TCU’s Families, Autism and Child Emotion Studies research lab study how parents who are raising children with autism cope with challenges of parenting, specifically the strategies and characteristics of families who are doing well.

“We find that optimism and hope are particularly important,” she says. Optimism reflects the parent’s general personality, but hope is “more like a way of thinking or problem-solving.” Her research finds that hopeful thinking in mothers of children with autism was associated with feeling supported, decreased feelings of loneliness and less depressive symptoms.

“One factor that’s emerged as particularly important for the psychological well-being of mothers of children with ASD is social support,” she adds. She recommends parents of children recently diagnosed with autism seek a good support network.

“Research shows families find support groups very helpful, especially in the beginning,” she says. “There’s so much to learn about navigating the health system and the school system. It can be really overwhelming. It’s nice to have people to talk to who will understand this; not everyone in your family or friend network will understand the challenge you’re going through.”