A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Fall, 2022 | Number 4, Volume 36

Autism raises risk for depression in mothers, but maternal depression does not worsen kids’ behavior

A new study reports that mothers of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have high rates of depression, but depression in these mothers does not lead to increased behavioral problems in their children. 

Danielle Roubinov and colleagues studied data collected from 86 mother-child pairs. Half of the mothers had children with ASD, and half had neurotypical children. The children were between two years and 16 years of age at the beginning of the study, although most were elementary school-age or younger. 

Collecting data from the pairs three times over a period of two years, the researchers found that about 50 percent of mothers of children with ASD had elevated levels of depressive symptoms at each interval. In contrast, only 5.9 percent, 13.6 percent, or 9.5 percent of mothers with neurotypical children (depending on the time frame) exhibited depression. 

The researchers found that regardless of ASD status, child behavior problems predicted higher levels of maternal depression later on. However, maternal depression did not predict later increases in child behavior problems. They conclude, “Parents who seek support for their children’s behavior problems are often referred to programs to improve parenting (and parenting stress), with limited attention to caregivers’ own mental health problems. Given the burden of depression, we contend that support for mothers is important even when children are the ‘target patients.’” 

Roubinov comments, “The finding that maternal depression does not lead to worsened child symptoms is especially important for mothers of children with ASD to help alleviate guilt many mothers feel about their children’s diagnosis and behavior problems. We hope these findings will reassure mothers both that it’s common to struggle with some depression in this high-stress situation of chronic caregiving and that their depression likely isn’t making their child’s behavioral issues worse.”


Citations

“Is it me or my child? The association between maternal depression and children’s behavior problems in mothers and their children with or without autism,” Danielle Roubinov, Brian Don, Robin Blades, and Elissa Epel, Family Process, August 26, 2022 (free online). Address: Danielle Roubinov, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, CA, 94143, [email protected]

—and— 

“Half of moms of kids with autism have high depressive symptoms,” news release, University of California, San Francisco, August 26, 2022.