Graduate student Christin Dewit examines stress levels of the caregivers of children diagnosed with autism

March 11, 2019

Dewit’s research took first place during UM-Dearborn’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition; she will represent the university at a regional competition later this month.

Christin Dewit holding certificate

Working with children in a clinical setting, Christin Dewit helped implement therapy for youths diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to manage emotions and learn social skills.

Over time, the graduate student built up relationships with the young clients — and observed that their caregivers needed clinician connection too.

“Early intervention and regular Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy — the gold standard when it comes to treatment for autism — for these kiddos is extremely important for growing social and communication skills and to reduce problem behavior,” she said.

“Who brings the kids to ABA therapy? Caregivers. However, ABA therapy might be multiple hours a day and happen multiple days a week. Higher parental stress can lead to burnout. So what can clinicians do to help lower parental stress?”

Now in the Master of Science in psychology program, Dewit has incorporated her observations for predicting parental stress into her thesis research: Treatment Related Stress in Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Dewit presented her research for the first time at UM-Dearborn’s Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition last month; she came in first place.

Originally developed by The University of Queensland, the 3MT Competition is meant to cultivate students’ academic, presentation and research communication skills by having students present their work in a way that the general population could understand in a three-minute time frame. The campus event was sponsored by the Office of Graduate Studies and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

“It’s important to be clear and concise when sharing clinical information with any audience. Research can be complicated, but how it’s explained doesn’t have to be,” Dewit said. “I wanted to work on presenting my research in an easily understood way and this format helped me do that.”

In addition to her first-person experience, Dewit said the research topic is important because one in 59 children are diagnosed with autism in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control.

For her research, Dewit will work with three Michigan clinics specializing in treatment of youth diagnosed with autism. Using surveys, she will examine parental stress levels and how that stress is linked to caregiver-client communication and a caregiver’s perceived barriers, which could include scheduling conflicts or a family crisis at home.

“Almost all of us have a family member or know of someone who has a family member diagnosed with autism,” she said. “It’s not known what causes autism, but it is known that ABA therapy helps. I hypothesize that when a clinician communicates with a caregiver on how his or her child is improving and acknowledges perceived barriers, parents and caregivers will have a lower stress level related to treatment. I believe that a stronger caregiver-therapist alliance will lead to a reduction of premature treatment termination.”

She’ll also look at ASD problem behaviors — like self-injury and destructive tendencies — and the effect it has on parents’ and caregivers’ stress levels. She said sharing that information will help parents understand that they are not alone.

“Research already shows that there is higher parental stress with raising a child with ASD than a child with different pathologies, such as Down syndrome,” she said. “We want parents to know that these are things that accompany ASD and it is something we can normalize to parents. As clinicians, we can let them know that it is overwhelming and we understand.

“If what I hypothesize is true, I’d love to talk with clinicians about scheduling five minutes of time at the end of the child’s therapy sessions for parental updates or a time for parental questions,” she said. “Caregivers and therapists are already aligned in the same mission — wanting progress for the child — so let’s work together on getting there.”

Dewit, who is advised by Psychology Professor Nancy Wrobel, will represent UM-Dearborn at the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools regional competition in St. Louis, Mo., on March 22.