Child With Autism May Affect Family Income

Study Shows Mothers of Autistic Children Are Less Likely to Be Employed

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 11, 2011
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May 11, 2011 (San Diego) -- Having a child with autism adversely affects family employment and income, new research suggests.

Mothers of children with autism are less likely to be employed than other mothers and likely to earn less when they do work, says researcher David Mandell, ScD, associate director of the Center for Autism Research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Fathers aren't affected in the same ways.

However, family income suffers. "It turns out, autism is also associated with a large reduction of family income -- a 27% reduction in family income," Mandell says. That translates to earnings of $17,640 less than families with children without autism, according to his study.

Mandell presented the findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research in San Diego.

Autism is an autism spectrum disorder, a range of neurodevelopmental disorders marked by difficulties in social and communication skills and repetitive behavior.

Economic Impact of Autism

Mandell used data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey from 2002 to 2007. This annual survey includes information on health care use, costs, work characteristics, and other information for a representative sample of U.S. households.

The researchers identified those children with autism. They then matched children with parents to evaluate the data.

The researchers looked at mothers and fathers separately. They estimated average loss of earnings associated with having a child with autism. They found differences between mothers and fathers in terms of work.

Of the more than 47,000 children living with the mothers surveyed, 147 were diagnosed with autism.

Among the findings:

  • 62% of the mothers with children with autism were employed outside the home, compared to 71% of mothers of other children without autism.
  • Average weekly work hours for mothers of children with autism were 34, compared to 35 for other mothers.
  • Mothers of children with autism earned 39% less than mothers of healthy children.

Of the nearly 35,000 children surveyed whose fathers were present in the home, 113 had autism.

Among the findings:

  • 91% of the fathers of children with autism were employed, while 95% of the other fathers were.
  • Average weekly work hours of the fathers of children with autism were 46; for those without, 44 hours.

Explaining the Income Gap

"A big question," Mandell says of his findings, "is why?"

He speculates that many families raising children with autism ''don't have a care system the way other families do."

For instance, he says, a family raising a child with spina bifida, a congenital abnormality, has a clear pathway through the system and knows what is needed.

However, the needs of children with autism, because the characteristics and severity of symptoms can vary, are not as clear-cut.

The families raising children with autism, Mandell says, ''are cobbling together services, fighting with health insurance."

The efforts may require so much time that someone's job has to give. "I think what is happening is the mother drops out of the labor market to be the case manager for the child," Mandell says.

Second Opinion

The findings are no surprise to Dana Lee Baker, PhD, assistant professor of political science at Washington State University, Vancouver. She has also studied the economic impact of autism.

"The size of the impact [from the new study] is relevant and something that will get people's attention," she says.

In her own research, she has found that parents of children with autism often decline promotions and otherwise ''stall" their career due to family demands.

She finds it's not the extra effort needed to care for a child with autism that's the problem, per se. It's the time it takes, she says, to coordinate the services their child needs.

The other obstacles parents face, she says, are ''things like being reprimanded at work'' due to absences to take care of necessary services for their child.

Parents need to attend educational planning meetings, for instance. "The child [with autism] is likely to have more disciplinary meetings [than children without]," Baker says.

This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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David Mandell, ScD, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; associate director, Center for Autism Research, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

International Meeting for Autism Research, May 12-14, 2011, San Diego.

Dana Lee Baker, PhD, assistant professor of political science; director, program of public affairs, Washington State University, Vancouver.

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