Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How Does an Empty Nest Affect Parents of Autistic Young Adults?

The transition from child to adult is a profound one, for both child and parent. As adolescents mature and develop their own identity, they yearn for independence and often find it through higher education or a career. Inevitably, the child becomes an adult and moves out of the family home. This can be an emotionally challenging time for mothers and fathers. But for parents of autistic children, the change can be quite dramatic. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) share a unique bond with their children. The behavioral, physical, and communication impairments that individuals with ASD experience can often result in a residential custodial relationship with a parent that lasts well into adulthood. The responsibilities that these parents face, sometimes with no end in sight, can add immense of amounts of stress to the intimate adult relationships of the parents. Until recently, few studies have looked at how this shifts when ASD children grow up and leave home. To address this question, Sigan L. Hartley of the Waisman Center and Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently conducted a study that examined the level of marital harmony in 199 mothers of children with ASD. Hartley followed the mothers for 7 years, during which the children transitioned from living at home to living independently away from their parents. The mothers were assessed for levels of marital happiness based on the symptom severity of the child, the household income, education level of the mother, and other children with disabilities. Hartley found that the more significant the behavioral impairment of their child, the less satisfied the mothers were with their marriages. The most satisfied mothers were those with high household incomes, close mother-child bonds, and the least amount of ASD-related behavior issues. Surprisingly, the transition from caregiver to empty nester had no effect on marital satisfaction for the women in this study. Hartley said, “Interventions aimed at managing the behavior problems of adolescents and adults with ASDs may help strengthen parents’ marital relationship.” Reference:Hartley, S. L., Barker, E. T., Baker, J. K., Seltzer, M. M., Greenberg, J. S. (2012). Marital satisfaction and life circumstances of grown children with autism across 7 years. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029354