Researchers Discover Happy Autism Parents
The popular reporting on this study gave the misleading impression that large numbers of parents of autistic children had been diagnosed with some sort of psychiatric disorder. In fact, very few of the parents had any diagnosis at all. Schizophrenia, although it had a statistically significant association, was found in only 0.6% of the mothers and 0.7% of the fathers of autistic children, as compared to 0.2% of the parents in the control group.
There's a confounding historical factor to consider here: Prior to the modern use of DSM and ICD classifications for autism spectrum conditions, many autistic children were misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. In his book Unstrange Minds, Roy Richard Grinker describes the history of autism and child psychiatry, including the confusion between autism and schizophrenia (page 105):
During the 1960s and 1970s the only mention of autism in the American Psychiatric Association guidelines was the adjective "autistic" in the criteria for "Schizophrenia, Childhood Type." In other words, if you were going to use the official categories, a diagnosis of autism was, de facto, a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Autistic children in Europe also were frequently misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. Because many of the parents in Daniels' study were growing up during this time period, it seems quite probable that some of those who received a schizophrenia diagnosis could in fact have been autistic. In other words, the study merely confirms the obvious: if you are autistic, your children have a higher likelihood of being autistic too. No surprise there.
What may surprise some folks, however, is that the study found very little depression among parents of autistic children. No association was found between depression and being a father of an autistic child. Although mothers of autistic children were more likely to be diagnosed with depression than mothers in the control group, the percentages were still very small (1.8% mothers of autistic children; 0.8% mothers of non-autistic children).
To put it another way: Contrary to the widespread stereotype of the suicidal, emotionally devastated autism parent, these families with autistic children were enjoying their lives just like other families. The fathers were no more likely to be depressed than any other fathers, and more than 98% of the mothers did not suffer from depression. These parents weren't wishing that their child would drown or fantasizing about driving off a bridge with their child. They were going through their everyday lives just like the rest of the world.
Some mainstream publications have been presenting a more reasonable view of the lives of families with autistic children. The Autism Hub's very own Kristina Chew is featured in an article in the May 2008 issue of Working Mother, which interviews mothers of special-needs children and shows a respectful attitude toward people with developmental disabilities. The article quotes a disability consultant, who himself has cerebral palsy, on the importance of parents taking pride in their children's positive attributes and making time to enjoy their lives. Kudos to both Kristina and Working Mother; it's good to see a more realistic and accepting perspective starting to take hold in society.