International Meeting for Autism Research: Parenting-Related Stress and Psychological Distress In Mothers of Toddlers with ASD

Parenting-Related Stress and Psychological Distress In Mothers of Toddlers with ASD

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
2:00 PM
E. M. Olson1, A. M. Estes2, J. N. Greenson3, J. Munson3, J. Winter4, S. E. Zebrowski5 and G. Dawson6, (1)Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, (2)Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, (3)University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States, (4)University of Washington, (5)University of Washington, Seattle, WA, (6)University of North Carolina, Autism Speaks, UNC Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, United States

Previous research indicates that stress is increased for parents of children with developmental disabilities, particularly autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Parent stress research has mainly focused on families with older children and factors influencing stress in parents of young children are not yet well understood. However, recent advances in early diagnosis have resulted in younger children being diagnosed with ASDs. Therefore, studies of parents of younger children are needed. Studies of preschool-aged children have found problem behavior is associated with increased parent stress, but studies examining whether decreased daily living skills are associated with increased stress have yielded mixed results. Further research is needed to understand how child-related factors in toddlers with autism impact parent stress.


We aim to investigate the influence of child characteristics, including diagnosis, problem behavior, and adaptive functioning, on parenting-related stress and psychological distress in mothers of toddlers with autism in comparison to typically developing toddlers and toddlers with developmental delays.


One hundred and twelve toddlers between 18 and 30 months of age and their parents participated in this study. Participants (Male=85; Female=27) were assigned to groups based upon the child’s diagnostic status: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD; n=61), Developmentally Delayed (DD; n=25), and Typically Developing (TYP; n=26). The groups were well-matched on age (ASD= 23.5, DD=22.4, TYP= 22.8 months). Each child received a developmental evaluation. Non-verbal mental age was obtained using the Mullen (AUT=17.68, DD=18.24, and TYP=22.96 months). The average Adaptive Behavior Composite standard scores from the Vineland were: AUT=70.32, DD=77.21 and TYP=95.23. Mothers completed questionnaires assessing psychological distress (Brief Symptom Inventory) and parenting-related stress (Questionnaire on Resources and Stress), and children’s problem behavior (Aberrrant Behavior Checklist) and daily living skills (Vineland).


We hypothesized that (1) parenting-related stress and psychological distress would be higher in mothers of toddlers with ASDs compared with mothers in the DD and TYP groups; (2) toddlers in the ASD group would have increased problem behavior and decreased daily living skills compared with the DD and TYP groups; and (3) child problem behaviors would be more strongly related to maternal parenting stress and psychological distress than child daily living skills. Preliminary analyses confirm that levels of stress differ significantly among groups, with mothers of toddlers with autism reporting significantly higher levels of stress (ASD>DD>TYP). Future analyses will focus on exploring the relationships among child characteristics and parent stress.


This study is designed to shed light on maternal stress in families with toddlers with ASD in comparison to toddlers with DD or typical development. To date, there is little published research on stress in mothers of very young children with ASD. These results may provide targets of intervention for toddlers that will likely reduce parent stress and psychological distress. Additionally, because previous research has elicited mixed results regarding the predictors of stress at different ages, these results may help clarify the course and impact of stressors across children’s development. Consequently, more precise interventions may be developed resulting in improved outcomes for children and their families across their lifespans.

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