This study provides a snapshot of the concerns the caregivers of children with autism in Qatar harbor regarding their child’s life, future, and care. Studies conducted elsewhere suggested that parents of children with autism seem to experience more stress than parents of typically developing children, and that maternal pessimism was associated with functional independence and severity of autism [12
]. The degree of social impairment of the child and the severity of his/her condition are believed to be associated with the caregiver’s burden and concern [12
]. Our cohort of children in the AG spent more time indoors, watching television or sleeping before the age of 3 than children in the NAG, showing features of social deprivation, isolation, and low functional ability. The long time a child spends indoor in this group could additionally reflect a tendency among caregivers of children with autism to keep their children isolated from the outside world. This could be due to a perceived lack of social and community understanding of the nature of autism and may mirror the stigma attached with this condition in the mind of the average person in this region. People may feel helpless and awkward when they find themselves in a situation where they have to deal with a child with autism or with his/her family, and this feeling may be intuited by the caregivers of the children, adding to their psychosocial burden.
Although it was assumed that the average time indoors until the age of 3 might be greater for girls with autism, an effect of gender on time spent indoors has not been demonstrated in this study. Whether greater time indoors after the age of 3 as compared to neurotypical children continues to be shown as children age will have to be investigated in future studies. The amount of time spent indoors prior to the age of 3 could be an interesting risk factor to explore further [14
]. With respect to the watching of television, studies conducted elsewhere reported similar findings to ours. For example, Chonchaiya and colleagues found that children with autism spectrum disorders began to watch television significantly earlier than controls and spent more time watching television than typically developing children [15
]. Since television is nearly always watched indoors, separating out the affect of being indoors versus watching television in and of itself would have to be considered. And as Larsson et al., (2009) demonstrated, the issues may be exposure to maternal smoking, low ventilation in the home and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flooring which this study did not consider [14
]. Interestingly, a study published in 2011 reported that adolescents with autism spectrum disorders spent considerable time in discretionary activities, with watching television and using a computer as the most frequent activities. The children in their study also spent little time engaged in conversations or doing activities with peers. This behavior could be perceived as a predictor for future development of the child. Indeed, it had been suggested that greater time spent in conversation and reading predicted future decreases in severity of social impairment, and the way that children and adolescents with autism spend their free time may have implications for their development and the course of their autism symptoms [16
Questions related to the caregiver’s predictions about the future of their child (getting married or having children) were used as indicators of the caregiver’s concerns. Around half of the AG caregivers did not wish to answer questions about whether they would encourage their children to get married or become parents when they grow up. This might be a reflection of the innate concern and pessimism these caregivers experience in respect to the future of their children. Refusing to answer these set of questions could also be associated with parental concern and stress. We had more fathers in the AG than mothers, and studies have shown that concern of fathers of children with intellectual disabilities was associated with the experienced social acceptance of the child, whereas in mothers it was the child’s behavioral problems [17
]. This could explain why so many respondents refused to answer these specific questions, all of which had social implications. Another explanation could be cultural, in that speculation on what will happen in a child’s life questions the tenent of one’s life being in God’s (Allah’s) hands. However, the true reasons of this phenomenon remain speculative. This is a limitation of our study and might be addressed through focus groups in the future. Faith did help a number of the caregivers of children with autism in coping. In an Islamic society like the one in Qatar, this should not be a surprising finding. Islamic teaching emphasizes virtues of endurance, resilience and acceptance of ill health, just like good health and good fortune, as both are the will of God and could be to test one’s faith and belief according to Islamic teachings. Indeed, studies on families of children with autism reported that parents coped through their religious faith and other emotion-focused strategies [18
Interestingly, the number of fathers who answered our questionnaires as the principal caregivers of their children with autism far exceeded the number of mothers in our AG in this study. This is a somewhat unexpected finding that suggests greater involvement of fathers in the care of their children in an area that has traditionally been dominated by mothers. However, another explanation is that given the societal penchant in the Middle East for men to be in the public sphere more than women, it could be that more fathers in our sample took the AG child to the clinic than would be expected and presented as the primary caretaker. Additionally, within the Middle Eastern culture, often the male is considered head of household and tends to speak on behalf of the family.
While AG had slightly more siblings overall than NAG siblings (Table ), interesting suggestions can be made from the comparison of the two groups. Nine percent of the AG had no siblings as compared to 7% of the NAG. Twenty-three percent of the AG only had one sibling as compared to 14% of the NAG. At 2 siblings, the trend reverses with 20% of the AG having 2 siblings and 33% of the NAG having 2 siblings. In the AG group, only 27% had 3 siblings but 40% had 3 siblings in the NAG group. This could indicate that, in some families, a decision is made to limit family size based on the fact that there is an autistic child in the family who needs care although this conclusion would require further study.
While a number of caregivers in the AG utilize specialized services, like special education classes and parent support groups, others said these services were unavailable to them. Other studies overseas suggested that participation in such services reflects some degree of perceived benefit, especially given the competing time and resource demands of caring for a child with autism [20
]. They also concluded that support group participants are more likely to be middle income and well educated individuals. Qatar has made tremendous efforts towards improving and upgrading the available services in the last few years. The two clinics from which participants in the study were recruited provide a number of free services, which include parent support group classes, speech therapy, music therapy, field trips, sibling day, and at least one of the two clinics is actively planning for an adaptive physical education class to integrate sport in the comprehensive care package for the the children. However, the expressed need for special services among a subset of participants in this study reflects some genuine caregivers’ concern about challenges facing the service providers in Qatar at the time of writing this manuscript, and possibly also reflects a degree of ignorance among caregivers about the availability of some of these services . Based on informal communications and interactions with staff, clinicians and families of children with autism during the course of this project, some of the challenges include long waiting lists, inconsistent provision of services, inadequacy in respect to staff numbers and expertise, complicated processes of referral, and sometime language barriers between the service providers and service beneficiaries.
Most of the QoL domains of caregivers of children with autism reflected poorer mental health compared to caregivers of neurotypical children, although the differences were not reaching statistical significance in most of the domains compared. Only the General Health domain was significantly poorer in the AG caregivers. This is the domain that reflects how respondents rate their health and how they estimate it to become in future. It was clear that caregivers of children with autism rated their general wellbeing as poor and they were expecting it to get worse.
There is so far no QoL instrument specifically designed for use with caregivers of developmental disorders, including autism. Most of the instruments available were constructed as measures for caregiver’s burden or strain, and only a few of them are autism-specific instruments [21
]. It is important to make a distinction between these attributes of health and well-being; where burden and strain are conceptually different from, and not necessarily synonymous with, health-related QoL. Indeed, it had been articulated in the literature that the QoL of caregivers could be improved even with the pressures in their lives. It has been suggested that the focus in caregiving research on burden should be supplemented with an emphasis on QoL [23
The results of our study may suffer from information bias. The persons who reported that they were the primary caregiver (usually the biological mother or the father) may not have been the actual day-to-day caregiver. We allowed the caregiver to self-identify as we could not ask the child with autism. Hence, realistically the actual primary caregiver of the person with autism in this population could have been the mother, the father, or the nanny or housemaid. Housemaids are easily employed in Qatar through employment agencies. However these caregivers are usually from a low socioeconomic class and with low literacy skills; thus not especially trained to work with people with special needs. Another limitation was the large number of caregivers in the AG who refused to answer questions relating to their predictions of their child’s future, their acceptance of having a child with autism, and the role of faith in helping them cope. While this is obviously an important limitation, it does reflect a degree of innate concern and pessimism, thus providing further proof to the degree of anxiety, concern, and pessimism these caregivers might be feeling.
One of the major limitations of our work was the poor response rate. Only 56% of the 100 families with autistic children were able to be contacted and interviewed. For the controls it was only 48%. This would likely introduce response bias. However, with respect to the AG families, mobility in Qatar is so frequent and spans socio-economic strata that we may have in fact captured a random selection of families with autistic children. With respect to the NAG, the research assistants (students) systematically collected the data, but were unable to contact all the 100 families due to academic responsibilities. Therefore, the findings from this study should be treated cautiously.