Research Spotlight: Parents of Children with Autism are More Likely to Have Depression

By Austin Cohrs, Penn State College of Medicine

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that is characterized by repetitive behavior and delays in social interaction and communication. Although ASD affects the child’s development, it can also have secondary effects on the child’s parents. Raising a child with ASD can be challenging for many parents and caregivers and may potentially have an impact on their personal health. The challenges in identifying, accessing, and paying for ASD services, given the nature of these children’s needs, available resources, and complex financing arrangements, can place a substantial burden on caregivers.

The relationship between child autism and parental depression

Previous studies have looked at parental stress and depression; however, these studies have looked at depressive symptoms via self-report and interview, rather than clinical diagnosis, in parents of children with ASD. In addition, no studies to our knowledge have used claims data to examine the relationship between the age of the child with ASD and the likelihood of depression in the child’s parents. Furthermore, a large number of studies have only looked at the mental health of mothers of children with ASD and very few studies have looked specifically at depression in fathers of children with ASD. Lastly, prior studies that have examined how ASD in children can affect parents’ health are limited by small sample sizes and patient self-report.

The objective of our study was to determine whether there was an association between having a child with ASD and a clinical diagnosis of depression in the child’s mother and/or father by using a large national claims database. Our study had several strengths, such as the large, nationwide sample, the use of a clinical diagnosis of depression and ASD rather than using patient self-report, the age and sex matched ASD and control groups, and the large, similar numbers of mothers and fathers.

Parents of children with ASD are more likely to have depression, which increases with the child’s age

We found that mothers (OR 2.95, 95% CI 2.81-3.09) and fathers (OR 2.41, 95% CI 2.25-2.58) of children with ASD were more likely to have a diagnosis of depression than parents of children without ASD. Although mothers were more likely to be diagnosed with depression, fathers were also at risk. Furthermore, the odds of depression in parents increased if they had more than one child with ASD (OR 1.42, 95% CI 1.26–1.59). Finally, as the age of the child increased, the odds of depression in the parents also increased.

Support and education of parents with a child with ASD should include mental health aspects

Based upon these findings, support and education should, therefore, be provided to both mothers and fathers of a child receiving a diagnosis of ASD and continue as the child develops. Specifically, providers should focus on counseling parents of older children as well as parents that have more than one child with ASD. Furthermore, the results should spur the development of specific programs and policies that provide mental health support to parents of children with ASD as well as provide more comprehensive health insurance benefits for children with ASD.

Link to the primary paper

Cohrs, A. C., & Leslie, D. L. (2017). Depression in parents of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A claims-based analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-017-3063-y

About Austin Cohrs, Penn State College of Medicine

Austin received his Master of Public Health degree in Biostatistics and Epidemiology from the Penn State College of Medicine in 2014, and after graduation, he accepted a job as a Research Project Manager in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Penn State College of Medicine. In this position, Austin is responsible for managing and assisting with research projects completed within the Center for Applied Studies in Health Economics (CASHE). These functions involve gathering and analyzing data from various databases, performing statistical programming, and developing reports and publications for a variety of health economic research projects. Austin has given poster and oral presentations at numerous meetings, symposiums, and conferences across the country. In addition to his work with CASHE, he manages the Community Benefit Inventory for Social Accountability (CBISA) database and he works with the Community Relations Department to track and report all of the Community Outreach Activities provided by the Hersey Medical Center (HMC) and College of Medicine. He also provides guidance and support for the HMC Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) and CHNA Implementation Strategy. Austin is involved with the Community Health Advisory Board, Community Education Collaborative, and the Partners for Healthy Communities of Central PA Coalition. Most recently, Austin has been working with the United Way and a few other community organizations to develop an online Community Dashboard for the Capital Region. When he’s not at work, Austin enjoys going to the beach, fishing and hunting, camping, snowboarding, and watching college sports.

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Latest update: March 29, 2017