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J Intellect Disabil Res. 2007 Aug;51(Pt 8):598-605.

Applied behaviour analysis: does intervention intensity relate to family stressors and maternal well-being?

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  • 1Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA.



Interventions based on applied behaviour analysis (ABA) are commonly recommended for children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD); however, few studies address how this intervention model impacts families. The intense requirements that ABA programmes place on children and families are often cited as a critique of the programme, although little evidence is available to support this claim. Using Pearlin's (1999) stress process model, this study assessed: (1) whether mothers of children participating in a home-based ABA programme reported elevated depressive symptoms; and (2) whether ABA intensity related to unmet family needs and maternal feelings of depression, personal strain and mastery.


Forty-one mothers of children diagnosed with an ASD participated in this study by completing questionnaires about their child's ASD behaviours, unmet family needs, and maternal feelings of depression, personal strain and mastery. Additionally, mothers provided information about their child's intervention programme and their own level of involvement in the programme. At the time of data collection, all families had been running a home-based ABA programme for at least 6 months.


Single-sample t-tests and multiple regression analyses were used to test the proposed hypotheses. Mothers of children participating in a home-based ABA programme reported more depressive symptoms than mothers of children with other developmental disabilities. Comparisons revealed comparable depressive symptoms between the mothers of the present sample and those in other ASD samples. When considering weekly ABA intensity, mothers reported fewer depressive symptoms when their child was older and when their child participated in more ABA therapy hours. Conversely, mothers who were more involved in their child's ABA programme reported more personal strain.


The findings of this study supported the hypothesis that families participating in ABA experienced elevated depressive symptoms, much like any family raising a child with an ASD, suggesting a potential area for family-level intervention. Additionally, ABA intensity related to maternal depression and personal strain, and therefore deserves continued attention. Future studies should attempt to replicate these findings with a larger and more representative sample and seek to identify mechanisms through which ABA intensity may influence maternal and family well-being.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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