According to a recent survey by UCSF researchers conducted over a period of 18 months, approximately 50 per cent of all mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had elevated levels of depressive symptoms, while rates for mothers with neurotypical children were much lower (six per cent to 13.6 per cent).We discovered that mothers higher levels of depression did not predict increases in childrens behaviour problems over time, even in families with a child with autism who are under a lot of stress, said Danielle Roubinov, PhD, UCSF assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the studys first author. That was both surprising and welcome news.Furthermore, while previous research has suggested that having a depressed parent increases the risk of children developing mental health and behavioural issues, this study found the opposite. Being a parent of a child with special needs is inherently difficult every day, said Elissa Epel, PhD, a UCSF professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science and the studys senior author. It is a classic example of chronic stress, which is why we have focused on caregiving mothers in our studies on the effects of stress on health.Regardless of ASD status, the researchers discovered that child behaviour problems predicted higher levels of maternal depression in the future. However, they did not observe an inverse effect; prior maternal depression did not predict later child behaviour problems. The finding that maternal depression does not worsen child symptoms is especially important for mothers of children with ASD because it helps alleviate the guilt that many mothers feel about their childrens diagnosis and behaviour problems, Roubinov said. We hope that these findings will reassure mothers that its normal to experience some depression while caring for a child and that their depression isnt exacerbating their childs behavioural issues.Researchers measured maternal depression and behavioural problems in 86 mother-child dyads over the course of 18 months. Half of the mothers had autistic children, while the other half had neurotypical children. The children in the study ranged in age from two to sixteen years old, with the majority (75 per cent) being elementary school age or younger.Although the study acknowledged that families with autistic child experience high levels of stress, the authors were careful to point out that stress is not their only distinguishing feature. Many mothers of autistic children report high levels of emotional closeness and positive interactions with their children, said Roubinov. These are valuable experiences on which supportive programmes can build.Following the study, the researchers offered mindfulness classes to all parents to help them cope with the stress of parenting. The parents were grateful for the opportunity to share common challenges and learn inner coping strategies, Epel said. Many studies have shown that mindfulness training can help with parenting stress, and we also discovered that our parents mental health improved.Despite a more difficult life situation, it is critical to experience and notices positive emotions and joy, according to Epel. Given the effects of chronic stress on health and mood, caregiving parents require extraordinary emotional support in addition to their childs special services, she said. It is just as important to support parents mental health as it is to support childrens mental health.She believes that physicians should be on the lookout for parental distress and be prepared to offer resources to parents, particularly parents of special needs children. Support groups are available in the Bay Area through the National Alliance on Mental Illness California chapter, Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, and some health insurers.