Therapy for parents of autistic children helps them handle emotions better

Parents see themselves in a more positive light after therapy.

While therapy helps kids with autism, it has a great effect on parents too. According to recent study, a group of researchers have discovered that parents who participate in cognitive therapy with their children with autism also experience improvements in their own depression, emotion regulation. Approximately 70% of children with autism struggle with emotional or behavioural problems, and may benefit from cognitive behaviour therapy to improve their ability to manage their emotions.

The scientists discovered that parents who participate in cognitive therapy with their children with autism also experience a real benefit that improves the family experience. “Most of the time when parents bring in their kids for cognitive behaviour therapy, they are in a separate room learning what their children are doing, and are not being co-therapists. What’s unique about what we studied is what happens when parents are partners in the process from start to finish. Increasingly we know that it’s helpful for kids with autism, specifically, and now we have proven that it’s helpful for their parents too,” Jonathan Weiss, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health and CIHR Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Treatment and Care Research.

Parents who took part in the study were involved in a randomised controlled trial. They were asked to complete surveys before and after the treatment and were compared to parents who had not begun therapy. Weiss and PhD student Andrea Maughan, examined changes in parent mental health, mindfulness, and perceptions of their children, during a trial of cognitive behaviour therapy for 57 children with ASD aged 8-12 who did not have an intellectual disability.

In the study, parents joined the kids as co-therapists. (Shutterstock)

The research showed that parents who participated in cognitive therapy with their children, experienced improvements in their own depression, emotion regulation, and mindful parenting. The research showed that parents improved their abilities to handle their own emotions and to see themselves in a more positive light,” said Weiss, adding, “It helped them to become more aware of their parenting and all of the good they do as parents.”

In the study, parents were co-therapists with their child’s therapist and were tasked with employing the same strategies alongside their children. This allowed the parents learn to help themselves in the process. Parents were required to write down their children’s thoughts during activities. “As a parent participating in the SAS:OR Program, I have grown as much as my son did. I used to use a “one size fits all” strategy with my son – now he and I have many tools to manage through difficult moments. The ability to talk about our feelings, identify triggers, and think proactively about approaches has brought both positivity and comfort to our lives. Watching my son develop in this program and find a way to start handling his feelings has been the greatest gift of all,” said Jessica Jannarone, a parent involved in study.

Weiss added the findings also speak to the importance for health care providers to involve parents in the process of delivering care to children with autism. Weiss concluded by saying, “We know parents of children with autism, in addition to all the positive experiences they have, also experience high levels of distress. So, if we can do something to reduce that, we have a responsibility to try to do so.” The study was published in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.




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