Reducing Distress in Mothers of Children With Autism and Other Disabilities: A Randomized Trial

BACKGROUND: Compared with other parents, mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disabilities experience more stress, illness, and psychiatric problems. Although the cumulative stress and disease burden of these mothers is exceptionally high, and associated with poorer outcomes in children, policies and practices primarily serve the identified child with disabilities. METHODS: A total of 243 mothers of children with disabilities were consented and randomized into either Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (mindfulness practice) or Positive Adult Development (positive psychology practice). Well-trained, supervised peer mentors led 6 weeks of group treatments in 1.5-hour weekly sessions, assessing mothers 6 times before, during, and up to 6 months after treatment. Mothers had children with autism (65%) or other disabilities (35%). At baseline, 85% of this community sample had significantly elevated stress, 48% were clinically depressed, and 41% had anxiety disorders. RESULTS: Using slopes-as-outcomes, mixed random effects models, both treatments led to significant reductions in stress, depression, and anxiety, and improved sleep and life satisfaction, with large effects in depression and anxiety. Mothers in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction versus Positive Adult Development had greater improvements in anxiety, depression, sleep, and well-being. Mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder improved less in anxiety, but did not otherwise differ from their counterparts. CONCLUSIONS: Future studies are warranted on how trained mentors and professionals can address the unmet mental health needs of mothers of children with developmental disabilities. Doing so improves maternal well-being and furthers their long-term caregiving of children with complex developmental, physical, and behavioral needs.