Autism Caregiving Costs Hit Mothers’ Income More


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Women now navigating the vast ocean of motherhood were likely born decades after the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.  Many mothers with academic degrees and work experience already on the resumé may assume that women have substantially achieved equality.  Perhaps they have not thought much about feminism, or about legislation, or any form of political expression pressing for change in the status quo pertaining to workplace practices, child care, labor standards for part-time workers, and so on.  Perhaps they believe that having children is a personal decision, resulting in strictly individual obligations, and having made their choice press on, dealing with the infinite variety of challenges that life tosses their way.  Perhaps … some news about the mothers of autistic children will change their thinking.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania studied the household earnings of families with children with autism, children with a health limitation other than autism, and children with no health limitation.  Mothers are more often responsible for family care needs, and routinely work less and earn less when they do work because of that role.  But how does raising an autistic child impact the parents’ incomes?  The economic analysis revealed that, on average, mothers of an autistic child earn 56% less than mothers of a child with no health limitation.  Compared to the mother of a child with a health issue other than autism, there is less of a gap, but still quite considerable, at 35%.  Mothers of an autistic child are 6% less likely to be in the paid labor force, and if they are, work on average seven fewer hours per week.  Here is an abstract of the report and a discussion of it by the Washington Post’s “On Parenting” blogger, Janice D’Arcy

Of course, the downward drag on the mother’s income is but a single aspect of a larger challenge.  Treatment for autism usually involves multiple providers.  It’s expensive, long-term, and comes with a heavy administrative burden.  Usually, it’s the mother who must find and arrange for the care, deal with the insurance bureaucracy, speak for her child and negotiate all the minute details.  She does this at the peril of her own economic stability, which may be even more critical in a family with medical needs relying on empl0yer-sponsored health insurance.  If the mother is parenting alone, the risks are even greater, as told in this personal story.  Of course, periods of high unemployment, downturns, home foreclosures, and other facets of our current recession intensify the household stress.

You will note that up to this point, I have focused only on the impact of caring for an autistic child on the mother’s income.  There is a reason for that.  According to the study, the father’s income is not negatively affected.  Because the mother can manage all the needs of the child herself, without affecting the father’s work?  Because it is culturally acceptable for the mother to cut back and scale down her earnings, but less acceptable for the father to do so?  Because the father’s income is higher than the mother’s, and if anyone is pedaling backwards on income, it’s the lower salary that will be sacrificed?  Perhaps some of the above, and more besides. 

Whatever the reasons, it is certain that they apply beyond autism alone.  There is a price paid for filling the family’s need for care.  It is paid mostly by women.  It depresses the wages of women with children and explains in part women’s lower wages relative to men.  It persists in spite of women’s equal (and recently, superior) education, and in spite of women’s equal workforce participation.  The “traditional work” of family care limits women’s access to networks of wealth, power, and influence required to participate in our political process, which in turn limits women’s political leadership, which in turn…well, you get the idea.

The authors of the study conclude, “It is essential to design universal health care and workplace policies that recognize the full impact of autism.”  It is no less essential to implement such policies recognizing that women do most of this country’s family care.  It is fundamentally unfair when women, alone, pay the price for the care they give.

“Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington