Autism-Related Depression in Mothers and Children

A pair of articles about autism and depression have captured my attention recently. The first involves a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in which researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health examined medical records from 50,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II and found that those who experienced the most physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse as children were 60 percent more likely to have a child with autism. Twenty-five percent of the queried women fell into the top group of the severely abused — a large percentage. 

The study doesn’t prove causation, but does note a correlation between the long term mental health of the mother and the well-being of her unborn child. Speculation is that severe abuse has lasting effects on a woman’s immune system or stress response system that leads to more risk for her unborn child. One person went so far as to suggest a woman who has suffered severe childhood abuse should think twice about having children.

While not discounting the risk factor, I think that is an extreme reaction and in effect, punishes the victim twice. Many victims of childhood abuse become wonderful mothers. Intent on rewriting their personal history, they become the mother they wished they’d had. 

This study is reminiscent of a previous one in which Dr. Gabor Mate postulated that mothers who are depressed after the birth of their child expose them to high risk of developmental disabilities, even inducing autism.

While I honored the effect of a mother’s depression on her child, I believed it to be one of many “environmental toxins” that contribute to autism, not a sole cause. All autism mothers know it’s easy to forget about taking care of yourself in your quest to take care of your autism spectrum (AS) child. Self-care can become a lofty goal instead of a daily habit. I know my children are hypersensitive to my mood to the point where they actually mirror it. 

The other recent article I read about autism and depression involves a new study appearing in the January issue of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders which concluded that children with autism have much higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than their neurotypical peers. The body of data is summarized in this way: 

Susan Dickerson Mayes, PhD, from the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, and colleagues determined the risk factors for and the frequency of suicide ideation and attempts in 791 children with autism (aged 1–16 years), 35 depressed children without autism, and 186 typical children. The researchers found that suicide ideation or attempts were rated as sometimes to very often a problem by 14% of mothers of children with autism, a rate 28 times greater than reported for typical children (0.5%) but lower than the rate reported for depressed children (43%). Four demographic variables: age ≥10 years, Black or Hispanic, lower socioeconomic status, and male sex were significant risk factors of suicide ideation or attempts among children with autism. Suicide ideation or attempts were experienced by 71% of children who had all four demographic risk factors. Depression, behavior problems, and being teased were the co-morbid psychological problems most highly predictive of suicide ideation or attempts, with nearly half of children with these problems reporting suicide ideation or attempts. 

Once again, we see autism mothers suffering from depression at a higher rate, which is only logical given the stresses of raising a child on the spectrum. It stands to reason that poverty would exacerbate an already difficult situation, limiting a family’s access to autism services.  Being a boy is a no-brainer, since the common wisdom is that boys are more prone to autism, although Dr. Tony Attwood might disagree

But I am wondering how exactly depression, behavior problems, and being teased are co-morbid psychological problems independent from autism. My experience is that most “behavior problems” are symptomatic of surrounding adults punishing the symptoms
rather than addressing the root causes and triggers of the AS child’s behavior. 

We know that being teased is frightfully common among individuals with autism. In fact, autism makes a child twice as likely to be bullied at school. And unfortunately, some of these bullies are teachers and administrators ignorant about autism who try to use overwhelming force and/or shame to bring a child into compliance. So if “depression, behavior problems, and being teased” is most highly predictive of suicide ideation or attempts, we are in serious trouble, because from where I sit, they are part and parcel to having autism. 

These articles constitute another clarion call for more support for autism families and more education and training within our schools to deal with the exploding number of autism cases. It’s hard to even voice this, but I think the prospect for real change is grim.

Given the fact that we can’t even account for the number of special education children severely injured or killed across our nation, nor even generate a national law concerning the use of restraint and seclusion in our schools, it feels like our kids are considered to “get what’s coming to them” for not behaving properly. I doubt their vulnerability to wanting to take their own lives will be considered the national health crisis that it is.

I hope I’m wrong.

Susan Moffitt

11 Responses to Autism-Related Depression in Mothers and Children

  1. Jill says:

    I highly disagree with this article. The field of psychology needs a wake up call that autism doesn’t occur more in men than women. These moms with depression are on the spectrum themselves. That is why they are having kids with autism. Thirds type of misinformation is why so many females don’t get the help they need. If you were living in the world of autism you would know this is a fact. Many parents realize they too fall on the spectrum but went unnoticed. Grasping at straws for causing autism because a mom is depressed is pathetic. I love how the people writing these observations are not learning about what living with autism is really like. It’s very sad.

  2. Hope says:

    I’m sorry what exactly is your title and position? Behavior problems in children with ASD are not the result of parents punishing the child for their symptoms! What people view as problem behaviors are the result of rigid and inflexible thinking as well as a lack of understanding or inability to read situations going on around them. Yes, parents mtv to get to the root of the behavior but kids on the autism spectrum have these behaviors due to their own thinking. It is not caused by anyone. It is how their brain works. It takes lots of teaching through visual aids, social stories, preparation, and teaching of proper behaviors or skills. This article is exasperating.

  3. Susan says:

    You misunderstand me. I actually wasn’t speaking of parents, but rather teachers and administrators who treat autism as a behavior problem, and end up punishing symptoms of autism. I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear.

    I don’t agree that mother’s depression causes autism at all.

  4. Tammy Kacmarynski says:

    Really? This is scientific? Are you fricking kidding me??

    How was the fact that many women on the spectrum gravitate towards nursing factored in? Or how about the fact the mothers could be experiencing Autistic burnout, which is VERY common for women who have spent their entire life misdiagnosed, mistreated, and improperly medicated for said depression.

    The medical community has done a GREAT disservice to those of us on the spectrum.

  5. Susan says:

    I was galled that they recommended women who were abused as children to abstain from becoming mothers.

  6. Sarah Kelso says:

    As a mother of a child with Autism I can tell you 1. I am not Autistic. 2. I am severely depressed. And a lot of it is poverty and economics. I have CIGNA. CINGA will not pay for Autism therapies (ABA, OT and others). So my 11 year old son goes without. I leave him in the care of assholes, so I can work for asshole and someday become an asshole myself@

    He is depressed, so much so that I had to check him into a nuero-psycological special care unit for 28 days to save him from taking his life. Still paying bills today from that trip. His discharge date was June 28, 2012.

    Please using caution when drawing these assumptions. We are real, and we are watching.

  7. Susan says:

    I empathize w/you completely, as poverty is frequently an inescapable reality of having children with autism. It sucks, it really does.

  8. Susan Rees says:

    My family is included in genetic research with TEACCH. We have multi family members
    with diagnosis and retrospective diagnosis for 5 generations. Every family member
    is on the spectrum, and most members are High Functioning, Workaholics, Handsome
    People and appear to be “storybook families”, somewhat like the Kennedy’s. However,
    depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia. OCD, suicide are high. Maternal Depression and
    Attachment Disorder are our first evidence of the neurological genetic link. So in our
    family, we have scientific evidence of chronic depression of autistic mothers as the
    cause of generations of High Functioning Autism. We are also descendents of northern
    European heritage: Norse, Scots, Irish, English. & German.

  9. Susan says:

    I don’t read from what you’re saying that the mother’s depression causes the autism, more that there is strong co-incidence.

  10. kathleen says:

    Im a single parent of 2 on the spectrum n one NT…Im not autistic..I am depeessed..bit its due to the fact that there is ZERO help for my kids…and the outlook for my youngest is grim indeed…years if waitlists with no end in sight…Florida sucks and i hear its not much better elsewhere…i wont live forever

  11. Susan says:

    I get what you’re saying. It’s very, very tough. Resources are so scarce and it’s very overwhelming. What part of Florida do you live in?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


Important Disclaimer

All information in this site is presented for support and educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for medical treatment or visiting a licensed medical physician.

Visitors who desire to apply or use any information listed herein are urged to consult with licensed healthcare professionals first. All information is deemed reliable but its accuracy can't be guaranteed.

Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

RSS Latest Article Entries

  • Pioneers of Change: How Two Mothers are Making a Difference August 16, 2014
    Out of the enormous tragedy that is Sandy Hook, rays of light are shining forth. Scarlett Lewis is the mother of Jesse Lewis, a six year old victim of the massacre. Moved by the words “Nurturing, Healing, Love” that her son wrote on a blackboard days before his death, she has created the the Jesse […]

Home - Autism Symptoms - Autism Videos - Autism Organizations - Autism Message Boards - Articles - Autism Recipes - Hyperlexia - Fragile X - Tag Cloud - AQ Test - Contact