Programmes teaching “mindfulness” and “positive psychology” helped mothers of children with autism to reduce their stress and depression, according to new study.

Most services for such families focus on the disabled child, researchers say, but improving the mental health of parents is likely to make them better caregivers and that, in turn, could improve their child’s development.

“There are literally decades of studies that have described the high levels of stress and distress, anxiety and depressive symptoms that mums and dads of children with developmental disabilities suffer, and I didn’t want to describe anymore, I wanted to do something about it,” says Elizabeth Dykens, who led the new study.

“So this is really for parents – it was for their mental health and well-being, for their own adult development,” says Dykens, an associate director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Centre for Research on Human Development in Nashville, Tennessee. “And I think that’s what really sets it apart from the traditional interventions that are much more child oriented,” she says.

Past research has found that cognitive behavioural therapies, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and so-called positive psychology, are effective at reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety and even depression, Dykens and her colleagues write in the journal Pediatrics.

Those two approaches have also been shown to lend themselves to group programmes and to being delivered by non-professionals who have undergone the therapy themselves and been thoroughly trained to help peers, the authors add.

Parents in peer-led groups experienced greater improvements in anxiety, depression, sleep and well-being, says study. – Filepic