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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Mothers of children with autism may be prone to depression if they feel responsible for the cause or outcome of their child's disorder, a new study suggests.
Autism is a developmental brain disorder that impairs, to varying degrees, a person's use of language and ability to communicate, interact socially and form relationships. While its cause is not completely understood, genetic vulnerability plays a role. And "bad" parenting definitely does not.
Still, with so many questions surrounding autism -- its exact cause, the difficulty in diagnosing the disorder or predicting how well a child will do -- parents constantly deal with uncertainties. Such ambiguity may leave some mothers vulnerable to depression, according to the new study, published in the journal Family Relations.
Specifically, mothers with high levels of "identity ambiguity" -- which included blaming themselves for their child's autism and holding themselves responsible for their outcomes -- reported more depressive symptoms and feelings of stress.
"One of the big messages here is that mothers are not to blame," said study author Dr. Marion O'Brien, director of the Family Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
And while mothers can push for better services for their autistic children, O'Brien told Reuters Health, they shouldn't hold themselves personally responsible for their children's ultimate outcomes, which vary widely from child to child.
"Mothers, by themselves, cannot determine the long-term outcome," she said.
O'Brien based her findings on interviews with 63 mothers of children with autism spectrum disorders, which range from autism to Asperger syndrome, a condition marked by much milder behavioral impairments.
She found that many mothers expressed feelings of "ambiguous loss," the conflicting feelings and ideas caused by finding out your child is different from the one you'd expected to raise.
Parents of children with autism, O'Brien explained, have to constantly balance optimism with realism -- having hope for their children's future, while recognizing that they have a lifelong, serious disorder.
For those who, like some mothers in this study, feel overwhelmed or depressed, a family therapist might be helpful, according to O'Brien. It's important to not simply treat the depression symptoms, she explained, because parents need to realize that it's not a "personal failing," but the uncertainty of their situation, that makes them feel distressed at times. Other parents of children with autism might also be able to help, O'Brien noted.
On the positive side, she said that most families with autistic children are highly resilient, and with time learn how to deal with their challenges.
SOURCE: Family Relations, April 2007.