Stress in moms with children who have autism spectrum disorder is a common problem, but there are few organized resources available to help.

Zoe Waddell, of Suffolk, Virginia, a rising sophomore majoring in psychology in the College of Science, is trying to change that. This summer she's analyzing the heart rate and self-reported stress levels of local moms as they interact with their children (with and without autism spectrum disorder) in a controlled environment at the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic on Price’s Fork Road.

Waddell, who is supported by Fralin Life Science Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program, hypothesizes that mothers of children with the disorder will demonstrate significantly higher levels of self-reported stress as measured by the Parenting Stress Index, in which parents can report their own levels of stress related to several aspects of being a parent. She also expects to find that moms of children with autism spectrum disorder experience a faster heart rate with little variability, meaning that they sustain high and stable levels of stress for a long time.

During her literature review this summer, Waddell found that low-heart-rate variability is linked to poor emotion regulation, which is linked to anxiety and depression. High stable heart rates, therefore, can put parents at risk for mood-related problems.

“Once there is scientific evidence that there’s a big concern, it can set the foundation for programs and support for these parents,” Waddell said.

For the pilot study this summer, Waddell plans to evaluate 20 local moms with children between the ages of 2 and 11, both with and without autism spectrum disorder.

Waddell’s mentor is Angela Scarpa, an associate professor of psychology in the College of Science and founder of Virginia Tech’s Center for Autism Research.

“This work is especially important for families affected by (autism spectrum disorder),” Scarpa said. “Understanding factors that contribute to parental stress will have implications for how to best support the family through their journey. We are very excited to work with Zoe on this (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) project.”

Scarpa and collaborators started the Stress and Anger Management Program for local families affected by autism spectrum disorder approximately nine years ago.  Every Monday night for nine weeks this summer, parents and their children come to the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic, where they learn useful skills for stress management.

Waddell volunteers with the program in addition to her research project.  Although she began her studies with a counseling career in mind, she said that the summer fellowship has opened her up to the possibility of an academic or research-oriented career in the field of psychology.

Local parents interested in becoming involved with her study, or other studies at the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research, should call 540-231-8747. In some cases, compensation is involved.

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