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Dad's Involvement With Autistic Child Helps Mom, Too

Study finds that depression levels in mothers drop when fathers engage in caretaking

FRIDAY, July 17, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Involved parenting by the father of an autistic child improves the mother's mental health, a new study finds.

Researchers looked at the families of 50 children with autism. They found that when fathers took an active role in parenting during infancy, it benefited both the child's development and the mother's mental well-being.

When autistic children were 4 years old, their mothers had lower levels of depression and stress if fathers read to the children and engaged in "responsive caregiving activities" -- such as taking them to the doctor or soothing them when they were upset.

"In family systems that include children with autism, the stressors are huge, and mothers need all the support they can grasp," study co-author Brent McBride, a professor of human development and director of the Child Development Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a university news release.

"Whether it comes from the child's father, their social network or online resources, mothers need additional support to be able to continue functioning in an effective way. We, as a society, have to ask men to become involved, and it's very important that men fully understand the reasons why their support and active engagement in parenting is so critical for the family's functioning and for the child," McBride added.

The study was published recently in Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Previous research has shown that mothers of autistic children often have higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety than other mothers.

When fathers spend time reading to autistic children or responding when they cry, mothers get time to do other household tasks or activities that reduce stress and improve their mood, explained study lead author Daniel Laxman. He conducted the research for his doctorate degree in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois.

"One of the key criteria of autism is difficulty with communication, which may explain why these children's mothers are especially susceptible to stress and depression," Laxman said in the news release.

"It can be very frustrating for parents -- and upsetting for children -- when children struggle with communication. If fathers are reading to their kids, telling stories or singing songs, it is going to be very beneficial for the child's development of communication skills and learning words. By improving children's communication skills, fathers' literacy activities may help alleviate some of the mothers' concerns and stress related to these problems," Laxman explained.

The children in the study all lived with both biological parents for at least the first four years of their lives, the researchers noted. Information was collected when the children were 9 months, 2 years and 4 years old.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.

SOURCE: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, news release, July 14, 2015
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