Mothers of children with autism report worse immunity

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Research conducted at Swansea University has found that mothers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) report high levels of problems with their immune system and low quality of life.

The research was carried out by Professor Phil Reed and Ms. Karolina Sejunaite from the Psychology Department within the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University, and Dr. Lisa A. Osborne who is based at the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board. The report is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The research surveyed 122 mothers of children with ASD and asked them to report their own levels of immune-related illness, as well as their assessments of their own quality of life. Mothers whose children had autism reported more colds, more respiratory illnesses, and more incidences of flu than mothers of children with Asperger’s syndrome.

The levels of immune problems reported by the mothers were related to the severity of their child’s ASD, and their quality of life was negatively impacted by the stress of being a parent of a child with ASD.

The mothers also reported very high levels of general stress both from parenting their child with ASD, who can display very challenging behaviours, and also from general events in their lives – often connected with obtaining support services for their child – the latter levels of stress were particularly strongly related to the mothers’ levels of illness.

Professor Reed said: “It has long been known that parenting a child with autism can be particularly stressful – not only in itself, but also because of the difficulties in accessing services and help. These data show that this struggle may have negative consequences for the health of the mothers coping with their child’s problems.”

The researchers point to previous findings regarding the impact of parenting a child with autism on various physiological systems, such as the cortisol system, and suggest that the stressors have a disruptive impact on these systems’ responses, which, in turn, impair the ability of the immune system to deal with infection.

Professor Reed said: “The relationship between psychological pressures and ill health is emerging in all sorts of fields, and these results show that the impact of one on the other is not restricted just to the person with the problem, but extends to their family as well.”

The researchers also suggest that difficulties often associated with attempting to get support and services for children with ASD, and the resultant impacts on their parents’ socio-economic status, as this can limit their ability to work, could play a role in establishing the link between caring for a child with ASD and ill health.

Professor Reed added: “Even if we just thought of these results in purely economic terms, they mean that these mothers are even more financially and socially disadvantaged due to their child’s condition. There is no reason to suppose that these results would not also be seen for many other sets of carers, implying potentially huge health-cost impacts, which we really need to address.”