New research finds a mother of a young autistic child can reduce parenting stress and depression by improving their relationship with the child. Investigators from Case Western Reserve University examined the effects of this technique in a small experimental research study involving 28 preschool-aged children with autism and their parents in Saudi Arabia.

Gerald Mahoney, Ph.D., a co-author of the study, said one focus of the investigation was to examine whether mothers’ high stress and depression levels might improve based on their level of responsiveness in daily interactions with their autistic child.

“Saudi Arabia is a country where there are not a lot of services for young children with disabilities,” Mahoney said.

“We wanted to examine the effects of this low-cost intervention strategy that focused on improving the quality of parents’ involvement with their children and evaluate the effects of this intervention on both children and their parents.”

Mahoney was joined in this study by a team of researchers from King Saud University and King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Autism is a disability that not only affects child development but also interferes with children’s ability to engage in social interaction with their parents and others.

Parents of children with autism commonly report extremely high levels of parenting stress and depression not only when their children are young but continuing throughout childhood.

Mahoney said that “parents of autistic children in Saudi Arabia are generally not involved with intervention services there, while parent involvement is a major focus of early intervention services in the United States and elsewhere.”

So, focusing on improving mother/child relationships made sense, he said. Mahoney said the strategy worked.

At the beginning of this four-month study, all parents reported clinical levels of stress, and 70 percent reported clinical levels of depression. By the end of the research, the percentage of parents who received responsive teaching experiencing clinical levels of stress dropped to 30 percent.

Moreover, parents experiencing clinical levels of depression dropped to 15 percent. In comparison, there were no improvements reported for parents in the control group receiving no treatment.

In addition, children of parents receiving responsive teaching made significant developmental improvements as well: 44 percent attained better social skills; 37 percent improved language development; and 24 percent enhanced fine motor skills compared to children in the control group.

These findings appear in the International Journal of Disability, Development and Education.

“Although this was a small sample, we can say that this research was quite successful,” said Mahoney, who has spent decades researching interventions for children with disabilities.

“By changing the intervention to a relationship-focused approach, we found that mothers’ depression and stress dropped dramatically.”

Source: Case Western University