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4 Ways Autism Causes Stress in the Family

Autism and family stress this image shows a child covering her ears while her parents are arguing at the back
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It’s 3:15 p.m. and the bell just rang, signaling the end of another hectic day in my classroom. Alex, a student of mine with autism, is standing close to his desk, staring at the colorful rug on the floor. He’s humming a song under his breath –– it’s a tune he hums when he feels anxious. When I softly tell Alex that it’s time to line up to go home, his humming abruptly stops, he looks up at me with those big, scared eyes. The exact cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is unknown, but scientists believe it is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Autism is often a lifelong condition, and its unique challenges create ripples of stress throughout the entire family.


One of the most stressful aspects of raising a child with autism is the unpredictability. Neurodivergent kids often have a difficult time with transitions, no matter how minor they may seem to us. Can’t you picture your kids splashing around in that water park? I know I can. But what I see as the perfect day out at the pool may feel like chaos and an unpredictable situation for a kid with autism.

As a teacher, I always try to create consistency and routine, and Alex does thrive on it for the most part. But the second we stray away from what’s normal, he can become overwhelmed quickly. For example, we recently had an unplanned fire drill at school. To most kids, this is a slightly exciting inconvenience. But for Alex, the noise, lights, change in routine, and the overall intensity sent him into a full-blown meltdown. It was difficult to calm him down and even harder to help him understand why this happened. This created unpredictability for all of us that day.

Routines, Rigid Schedules, and Sensory Preferences

These moments are common in the lives of families living with kids who think and learn differently. Routines and rigid schedules can be a lifeline for parents whose children need extra help to maintain a sense of control. Neurodivergent kids may also have sensory preferences that most of us don’t even think twice about. For example, the tag on the back of a shirt, the feel of certain fabrics, a strange smell, or the sound of traffic outside can make some kids feel completely overwhelmed and result in unpredictable behaviors that a neurotypical person may not fully understand. It can be difficult and stressful to constantly navigate this type of unpredictability.

Difficulty Communicating

Many kids with autism face significant challenges with communication, both verbally and nonverbally. This is another key contributor to family stress. Often, they struggle to understand what’s being said and have a difficult time sharing their thoughts and feelings. This creates frustration and confusion for both kids with autism and those around them.

Think of a typical grocery store trip with your child. There are the bright fluorescent lights, the endless aisles, people all around. It could be a recipe for overwhelm for many neurotypical kids. But now imagine a child with autism facing the same experience who also can’t articulate what they are feeling, seeing, and experiencing. When communication breaks down, it can be easy to feel isolated and unsupported, and ultimately lead to even more stress.

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Communication Breakdown

Communication breakdowns frequently contribute to meltdowns and challenging behaviors for neurodivergent kids. Sometimes, a child with autism may simply struggle to say “no” out loud when they don’t want to do something. Instead, they may use their body to communicate – throwing themselves on the floor, hitting, refusing to move – leaving parents feeling confused, stressed, and helpless.

Social Isolation

Raising a child with autism can be socially isolating for the entire family. It can be difficult to maintain friendships and social connections when your kid has different needs and priorities compared to their peers.

Making Time for Friends

For example, finding age-appropriate activities that are enjoyable for a child with autism may require quite a bit of research and effort. Playdates might be stressful or unsuccessful if the other children aren’t understanding of your child’s unique needs. In my own experience as a teacher, I’ve had children on the spectrum struggle with traditional classroom playgroups or interacting with their peers on the playground. This can lead to them missing out on those important social experiences. When families feel a sense of isolation because of social difficulties, this can only make stress levels rise even further.

autism causes. two friends are giving each a high five.
Read more: 5 Ways to Manage Autism and Stress

Financial Burden

Caring for a child with autism can be very expensive, and this adds another layer of stress for families already operating under pressure. Kids with autism frequently need specialized therapies, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, or behavioral therapies. A single therapy session can cost upwards of several hundred dollars per hour, and some insurance plans don’t provide extensive coverage for these services.

Costly Therapies and Treatments

Many families may choose to explore additional therapies and treatments, such as biofeedback training and dietary changes, but these can also carry a hefty price tag. Additionally, specialized medications, accommodations at home, and other necessities further add to these ever-increasing costs of raising a child with special needs. This financial strain can leave parents feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

Therapy TypeAverage Cost
Speech Therapy$75 – $125 per hour
Occupational Therapy$90 – $120 per hour
Behavioral Therapy$50 – $200 per hour

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Raising a child with autism is immensely rewarding, but it also brings about unique challenges. The unpredictability, communication difficulties, social isolation, and financial burden can all create significant stress for parents and other family members. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Seek support from friends, family, therapy professionals, or online communities. Finding resources is a vital part of caring for yourself and your family in the face of the stressors that come with raising a neurodivergent child. With the right tools and understanding, you can move forward with purpose and strength.

Additional Resources:

  • Autism Speaks: This organization provides a wealth of resources for parents and families affected by autism.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health This website offers extensive information about autism, including causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.
  • National Autism Association This is an excellent site for finding practical tips and strategies for supporting a child with autism.

FAQs About How Autism Causes Family Stress

What are some common sources of stress for families with a child with autism?
Parents may experience stress related to their child's diagnosis, financial strain, and navigating the healthcare system. Siblings may feel left out or experience sibling rivalry due to the child with autism needing more attention and time.

How can parents manage stress related to their child's autism diagnosis?
Seeking support from friends, family, or support groups can be helpful. Additionally, taking care of one's own mental and physical health through activities like exercise, meditation, or therapy can make a big difference.

How can parents support their typically developing children in a family with a child with autism?
It's important for parents to make time for their other children, communicate openly with them, and seek out resources like counseling or sibling support groups.

What are some tips for managing financial stress related to autism in families?
Seeking out financial assistance programs, creating a budget and sticking to it, and finding creative solutions for managing expenses can all be helpful.

This post was originally published on 06/24/2021. It was updated on 02/22/2024.

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