Previous research supports a link between maternal factors (e.g., maternal stress, maternal education) and developmental outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) (Harris, 1984; Osborne, McHugh, Saunders, & Reed, 2007). For example, higher levels of parental stress have been shown to relate to poor treatment outcomes in children with ASD (Osborne, McHugh, Saunders, & Reed, 2007). Other research has shown that lower levels of maternal education have a variety of negative outcomes for children (Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003; Pogarsky, Thornberry, & Lizotte, 2006), while higher levels of maternal education have been associated with a variety of positive outcomes. Studies have shown a positive correlation between maternal education and language development (Dollaghan et al., 1999) as well as literacy (Reese, 1995) in typically developing children. Research also suggests that children of highly educated mothers are less at risk for mental retardation (Chapman, Scott, & Mason, 2002). However, there is little research that examines the link between maternal education and rate of child development in children with ASD.
The current study examines the link between maternal education and developmental rate in preschool children with ASD, and the effect of maternal stress on these relationships. Phenotypic variability (including developmental rate) in ASD could potentially be attributed to a wide variety of modifying processes, including family factors such as maternal education and maternal stress. These modifying processes on their own do not necessarily convey risk for autism but instead influence the behavioral phenotypic expression of this disorder (Mundy, Henderson, Inge, & Coman, 2007). Despite the lack of research examining ASD and maternal education, researchers believe maternal education will show similar effects on developmental outcomes for children with ASD.
Data were collected as part of a larger multi-site study comparing preschool treatment models for students with ASD. Pre- and post-test month scores on the Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MSEL) and the Preschool Language Scale-IV (PLS4) were used to calculate related developmental rates during intervention. Maternal stress was measured using the Parenting Stress Index (PSI). Preliminary analyses will be presented on first year data from one site participating in the larger study. It is hypothesized that higher levels of maternal education will be positively correlated with developmental rates during treatment on both the MSEL and PLS4, and that this relationship will be moderated by maternal stress.
Preliminary results did not find any significant correlations between maternal education and developmental rate. However, when examining the moderating effects of maternal stress, results showed that for parents with high levels of stress, maternal education was a predictor of developmental rate on one subscale of the MSEL, β = -1.27, p = .01.
The results support the hypothesis that stress moderates the relationship between maternal education and developmental rate. These results suggest that intervention targeted at the families with elevated levels of maternal stress may be beneficial to the overall development of children with ASD.