Being the parent of a child on the autism spectrum does not cause depression,
nor will these parents necessarily experience the negative feelings
that go with depression. But in an effort to provide the best possible
care for their child, parents often sacrifice their own physical
and emotional needs and the emotional and physical experiences involved
can strain even the most capable person. The resulting feelings
of anger, anxiety, sadness, isolation, exhaustion — and then guilt
for having these feelings — can exact a heavy toll.
Feeling down is natural
Everyone has negative feelings that come and go
over time, but when these feelings become more intense and leave
parents totally drained of energy, crying frequently or easily angered
by their child, it may well be a warning sign of depression. Concerns
about depression arise when the sadness and crying don’t go away
or when those negative feelings are unrelenting.
Unfortunately, feelings of depression are often seen as a sign of
weakness rather than a sign that something is out of balance. Comments
such as “snap out of it” or “it’s all in your head” are not helpful,
and reflect a belief that mental health concerns are not real. Ignoring
or denying your feelings will not make them go away.
Early attention to symptoms of depression through exercise, a healthy
diet, positive support of family and friends, or consultation with
a trained health or mental health professional may help to prevent
the development of a more serious depression over time.
Symptoms of depression
People experience depression in different ways.
Some parents may feel a general low-level sadness for months, while
others suffer a more sudden and intense negative change in their
outlook. The type and degree of symptoms vary by individual and
can change over time. Consider these common symptoms of depression.
See if you have experienced any of the following for longer than
• A change in eating habits resulting in unwanted weight gain or
• A change in sleep patterns—too much sleep or not enough
• Feeling tired all the time
• A loss of interest in people and/or activities that once brought
• Becoming easily agitated or angered
• Feeling nothing you do is good enough
• Thoughts of death or suicide, or attempting suicide
• Ongoing headaches, digestive disorders, chronic pain etc that
don't seem to go away.
Special parenting concerns
What do lack of sleep, Austism Spectrum Disorders,
and whether you are male or female have in common? Each can contribute
in its own way to a caregiver’s increased risk for depression. Parenting
a child with autism
syndrome can have many additional stresses compared to looking
after a child with physical disabilities. Cognitive issues such
as developmental delays, challenging
behaviours, aggression and emotional dependency can easily take
caregivers to the edge of their coping abilities without consistent
and dependable support.
Women, primarily wives and daughters, provide the majority of parenting,
despite the inroads of feminism over the decades. In the United
States, approximately 12 million women experience clinical depression
each year, at approximately twice the rate of men. A National Mental
Health Association survey on the public’s attitude and beliefs about
clinical depression found that more than one-half of women surveyed
still believe it is “normal” for a woman to be depressed during
The study also found that many women do not seek treatment for depression
because they are embarrassed or in denial about being depressed.
In fact, 41% of women surveyed cited embarrassment or shame as barriers
Men are less likely to admit to depression and doctors are less
likely to diagnose depression in men. Men will more often “self
treat” their depressive symptoms of anger, irritability or powerlessness
with alcohol or overwork. Although fathers tend to be more willing
than mothers to hire outside help for assistance with home care
duties, they tend to have fewer friends to confide in or positive
activities outside the home. The assumption that depressive symptoms
are a sign of weakness can make it especially difficult for men
to seek help.
importance of sleep
While sleep needs vary, most people need around
eight hours a day. Loss of sleep as a result of parenting an autistic
child one can lead to serious depression. The important thing to
remember is that even though you may not be able to get your child
to rest throughout the night, you can arrange to get much needed
sleep. Hiring a respite
worker to be with your child while you take a nap, or finding
a care center or scheduling a stay over with another family member
for a few nights, are ways to keep your caregiving commitment while
getting the sleep you need.
Depression after placement
Making the decision to move your child into a
residential facility can be very stressful, even if they are adult
children. While many parents are finally able to catch up on much
needed rest, loneliness, guilt and monitoring the care a loved one
receives in this new location can add new stress. Many parents feel
depressed at the time of placement and some continue to feel depressed
for a long time after.
What to do if you think you have depression
Depression deserves to be treated with the same
attention afforded any other illness, such as diabetes or high blood
pressure. If you feel uncomfortable using the term depression, tell
the professional that you are “feeling blue” or “feeling down.”
The professional will get the message. The important thing is to
The first step to getting the best treatment for depression is to
meet with a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist,
or social worker. At the same time, schedule a physical exam with
your doctor. Certain medications, as well as some medical conditions
such as viral infection, can cause the same symptoms as depression,
and can be evaluated by your physician during an exam. The exam
should include lab tests and an interview that tests for mental
status to determine if speech, memory or thought patterns have been
Although it’s not unusual for a physician to prescribe antidepressant
medication, medication alone may not be the most effective treatment
for depression. The guidance of a mental health professional throughout
your treatment is strongly recommended. The therapist or counsellor
will listen to your concerns, screen you for symptoms of depression
and assist you in setting up an appropriate course of treatment.
Nowadays the usual approach looks at some counseling first and possibly
add some medication.
One way to find a professional is to ask a friend for the name of
someone they know and trust. You may also find someone by asking
your minister or rabbi, your doctor. In addition, national organisations
can provide contact information for mental health professionals
in your community.
It is important to trust and feel comfortable with the professional
you see. It is not uncommon to request a free introductory phone
or in-person meeting to help determine if the professional is the
right match for your particular needs and style. It is appropriate
to clarify what the cost will be, how much your insurance will pay
and how many scheduled sessions you should expect to have with the
mental health therapist. Any treatment should be evaluated regularly
to ensure that it continues to contribute towards your improved
health and growth.
Exercise has been found to reduce the effects
of depression. Walking three times a week for 30 to 45 minutes has
been linked to reducing or alleviating symptoms of depression. It
is unknown whether physical activity prevents the onset of depression
or just helps modify the effects. Arranging time for exercise is
sometimes difficult for parents. It is often seen as a “value-added”
activity — something to do when everything else is done. You might
consider adding it to your “to do” list, asking a friend to give
you a “walk date” each week as a gift, or requesting that your doctor
write a prescription for walking or joining an exercise class. All
the research shows that for a healthier life, it makes good sense
to make time for exercise.
Strategies to help yourself
Depressive disorders can make one feel exhausted,
helpless and hopeless. Such negative thoughts and feelings make
some people feel like giving up. It is important to realise that
these negative views are part of the depression and may not accurately
reflect the situation. Here are some useful self-care
tips for dealing with depression:
• Set realistic goals and reasonable amounts of responsibility
• Break large tasks into small ones
• Confide in someone instead of being alone and secretive
• Participate in activities that may make you feel better like exercise
or a movie
• Expect your mood to improve gradually
• Postpone important decisions until the depression has lifted
• Remember that positive thinking replaces the negative thinking
as depression lifts
• Let your partner, family and friends help you.
Direct assistance in providing care for your loved one, such as
respite care relief, as well as positive feedback from others, positive
self-talk, and recreational activities are linked to lower levels
of depression. Look for classes and support groups available through
caregiver support organisations to help you learn or practice effective
problem-solving and coping strategies needed for caregiving. For
your health and the health of those around you, take some time to
care for yourself.
See the Family
and Carer issues section of the website for more information.
to read a fact sheet on self-care strategies for parents.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This autism fact sheet is under copyright www.autism-help.org