Half of moms of kids with autism have high depressive symptoms: Mothers’ depression does not worsen children’s behavior symptoms, study finds

About 50% of all mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had elevated levels of depressive symptoms over 18 months, while rates were much lower (6% to 13.6%) for mothers with neurotypical children in the same period, UCSF researchers report in a new study published August 26 in Family Process.

In addition, while past studies suggest having a parent with depression increases the risk that children will have mental health and behavior problems, this study found something different.

“We found mothers’ higher symptoms of depression did NOT predict increases in children’s behavior problems over time, including among families with a child with autism who experience a lot of stress,” said Danielle Roubinov, PhD, UCSF assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and first author of the study. “That was surprising and good news.”

“Being the parent of a child with special needs is inherently challenging every day,” noted Elissa Epel, PhD, UCSF professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, and senior author of the study. “It is a prototypical example of chronic stress, which is why we have been focusing on caregiving moms in our studies that examine effects of stress on health.”

“We already know from this sample that mothers with more depression tend to have signs of faster biological aging, such as lower levels of the anti-aging hormone klotho and older immune cells, on average,” added Epel. Here, we wanted to understand the impact of their depression on their child, and vice versa.”

A One-Way Street

The researchers found that child behavior problems predicted higher levels of maternal depression down the road, regardless of ASD status. They didn’t see the inverse effect, however; prior maternal depression didn’t predict child behavior problems later.

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