Stress Levels of Parents of Autistic Children Comparable to Combat Soldiers


If you are on any social media channels, I’m sure you’ve seen the meme that reads, ‘autism moms have stress comparable to combat soldiers.’ 

It’s always floating around.

And it catches my eye every single time I see it.

That meme comes from a study done a while back by the University of Wisconsin Madison that monitored the stress levels of a group of mothers and their autistic children. The study lasted for 8 days and reported on their daily experiences.

They were interviewed at the end of each day, and on 4 of the days, researchers measured the moms’ hormone levels to assess their stress.

Fascinating, right?

I’ve always been intrigued by this study. I know my life is stressful. At least it feels that way. ALL THE TIME. But is it really? Does the study back up what I am feeling?

I never knew real stress until I had my son. Yes, prior to him I had stressful moments too. That’s life.

A college final. A terrible boss. Planning a wedding. And of course money to name a few.

But nothing has ever compared to the stress I feel as a mom to a vulnerable, nonverbal child with anxiety.

I always say, my adorable, cute, funny, son can take any situation and bring the stress level up to a 10 real fast.

Meal time? Anything besides chicken nuggets? Stressful.

Car ride? Turn the wrong way? Stressful.

Haircut? No way Jose. Stressful.

Walking through a parking lot? Nope. Stressful.

If you dig into the research it goes onto say, the levels of chronic stress experienced by the mothers were similar to those of combat soldiers. The greater the child’s behavior problems, the worse the mothers’ stress.

This makes sense to me. Although my son is 8, he has no self care. We feed him, bathe him, dress him, keep him safe, hold him outside, etc.

Mothers of those with autism reportedly spend at least two hours more each day caring for those children than a comparative group of mothers whose children were not autistic.

I know this one is true because I live it. My 8 year old is autistic while my six year old is not. My 8 year old requires WAY more care than my other son.

The mothers of the autistic children were interrupted at work an average of once every four days. For the other mothers, the frequency was fewer than one interruption every 10 days.

Every single work day for me consists of a MINIMUM of 2 phone calls, 2 emails and 1 text about my autistic son. And at least 2 appointments outside of his school per week. This means that getting to the doctor for myself is impossible.

I also marvel at how my other son is almost through his kindergarten year and has never required a phone call to school. Or a text. Yes, an occasional email about birthday cupcakes but that is about it.

The autism mothers were also three times as likely to report a stressful event on any given day, and twice as likely to be tired.

Well that one is just obvious.

In comparison with a nationally representative sample of mothers of children without disabilities, mothers of adolescent and adult children with ASD spent significantly more time providing childcare and doing chores, and less time in leisure activities.

Fatigue, arguments, avoided arguments, and stressful events were also more common among mothers of individuals with ASD.

Those statistics are my life.

I have to always be ‘on.’ Always alert. Always ready.

We don’t relax in our home. We don’t sit and read a book. Or watch television.

Our son needs constant one-to-one attention. Around the clock.

At any minute he could grab a scissors. Or put the end of a phone charger in his mouth. Or elope out the front door.

Baby proofing is still a very real thing over here. Except, our son is much bigger. More agile.

The most worrisome part? It probably isn’t going to end anytime soon.

That’s the part that the study seemed to leave out. The stress will last forever. Unlike the war.

I’ve never been a combat soldier. Nor do I want too. (People that choose to are amazing.) And I don’t know what their stress is like either.

But I know mine. And it’s through the roof.

Caring for a child that has no sense of danger. Almost seems to crave it. It means I always have to be ‘on’, alert, and ready for anything. Without a break.

That wears on a person.

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Link to research from UW-Madison.

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Kate Swenson

Kate Swenson lives in Minnesota with her husband Jamie, and four children, Cooper, Sawyer, Harbor and Wynnie. Kate launched Finding Cooper's Voice from her couch while her now 11-year-old son Cooper was being diagnosed with autism. Back then it was a place to write. Today it is a living, thriving community of people who want to not only advocate for autism, but also make the world a better place for individuals with disabilities and their families. Her first book, Forever Boy, will be released, April 5, 2022.

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  1. James Edward Jones on April 19, 2019 at 8:23 pm

    I have a gr. Dau. with developemental delayed , with other diagnoses, she is 21 now and want info on shared housing in the Yakima Wa. Area .
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  2. Sol on April 20, 2019 at 10:38 am

    I don’t know if I’m as stressed as a combat soldier but like you mention, every activity takes twice as much as with a neurotypical child. It might be that we are so used to this routine that you don’t realise how much of a toll is taking on your/our health. I know if I go out with my youngest, I have to be ready for any scenario!
    Maybe I I feel more comfortable saying than I am definitely more stressed than a mum of a neurotypical child.

  3. Josephine on April 20, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    I think there is a PTSD component for sure. When my daughter gets a certain tone in her voice or a distinctive stim that precedes a meltdown I can feel the stress hormones surging through me and there is a fight or flight instinct.