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Autism Parents May Be at Risk for PTSD

Michelle Diament March 30, 2021

Nearly 1 in 5 parents of kids with autism who participated in a new study had enough symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder to qualify for a provisional diagnosis.

The study, which included hundreds of parents of children who are on the spectrum, found that 18.6 percent met criteria for PTSD.

The symptoms were more likely in parents whose kids displayed challenging behaviors like physical aggression and self-harm, according to findings published recently in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Ali Schnabel of Deakin University in Australia who worked on the study said that it’s hard to say if the findings would extend across all parents of kids with autism, particularly given how varied the spectrum is. She noted that the study looked overwhelmingly at mothers — who accounted for 96 percent of participants — and that fathers may experience things differently.

Nonetheless, she called the idea that PTSD was three times higher among the parents of children with autism studied compared to other parents “quite alarming.”

“Especially when you think about the effect that undiagnosed PTSD can have on an individual’s health and their capacity to connect with their children and other family members, it is troubling to consider how many parents of children with autism might be dealing with PTSD without support, while trying to support their child,” Schnabel told Disability Scoop by email.

The research looked at 395 parents of children ages 5 to 20 in Australia. Of the parents, 226 had a child on the spectrum while 139 had a child with a rare disease like Duchenne muscular dystrophy and 30 had typically-developing children. All of the parents completed an online questionnaire about their children’s behavior, traumatic stressors in their lifetimes and a checklist commonly used to assess symptoms of PTSD.

None of the parents of typically-developing children met the clinical threshold for PTSD. Among parents of those with rare diseases, just over 12 percent met the criteria for a provisional diagnosis.

Schnabel said she hopes that health professionals working with families of those with autism “might become more proactive in screening for PTSD in such parents.”