An Examination of Selected Psychophysiological Parameters of Stress in Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
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Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders that are often associated with a broad range of difficulties and challenges for the individual. Parents of children with ASD often experience higher levels of stress than parents of typically developing children. However, there is a lack of research investigating the physiological effects of stress related to caring for a child with ASD on the health of parents. The purpose of this research was to examine factors that predict stress among parents of children with ASD. Furthermore, this research investigated physiological markers of stress (i.e., blood pressure (BP), heart rate (HR), cortisol, and alpha-amylase (sAA) levels) to determine the effects, if any, of stress related to parenting a child with ASD on these physiological markers. Three interrelated studies were conducted, whereby participants wore an ambulatory blood pressure monitor for 24 hours, collected saliva samples which were analysed for cortisol and sAA levels, and completed a number of questionnaires. Chapter 2 investigated stress measurements among mothers of children with ASD (N = 74). The aim was to identify factors predictive of stress, and to determine if mothers of children with ASD are at risk of experiencing hypocortisolism (i.e., blunted cortisol responses). A higher quantity of unmet service needs, sleep problems, use of maladaptive coping strategies, adaptive behaviour and socialisation deficits, and oppositional behaviour predicted higher levels of stress. Furthermore, there was evidence of hypocortisolism. Chapter 3 compared stress measurements between mothers (n = 19) and fathers (n = 19) of children with ASD to determine if mothers and fathers are affected differently by stress related to caring for a child with ASD. Mothers of children with ASD reported higher parenting responsibility, anxiety, depression, and parenting stress than fathers of children with ASD. Mean cardiovascular (CV), cortisol, and sAA levels did not significantly differ between mothers and fathers. However, fathers had significantly higher BP variability than mothers, and mothers had significantly lower HR variability than fathers, both of which are associated with poorer health outcomes. Additionally, fathers' stress was found to be correlated with mothers' anxiety and depression, although mothers' stress was not significantly correlated with fathers' anxiety and depression. There was evidence of hypocortisolism among both mothers and fathers. Finally, Chapter 4 compared stress measurements between dyads of parents of children with (n = 19) and without (n = 19) ASD, in order to control for stress related to normative parenting. Parents of children with ASD reported significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression, and parenting stress than parents of typically developing children. The parenting groups did not differ with respect to mean CV, cortisol, or sAA levels. However, parents of children with ASD had significantly lower absolute levels of cortisol on the third awakening response than parents of typically developing children, suggesting a risk of hypocortisolism. Fathers of children with ASD and mothers of typically developing children were found to have the highest sleeping BP variability, suggesting that the risk of CV disease for mothers and fathers may depend on the relative risk imposed by the impact of CV variability in the respective parenting groups. The results of the current thesis were discussed in relation to their practical implications, in addition to future research directions. The overall research findings indicate that further supports are needed for parents of children with ASD in order to prevent the development of stress-related health problems.
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