Laura Foran Lewis, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Vermont, has received the 2022 Best of The Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing award for her article "Exploring the Birth Stories of Women on the Autism Spectrum,” cowritten with recent College of Nursing and Health Sciences graduates Hannah Schirling, Emma Beaudoin, Hannah Scheibner and Alexa Cestrone.
Lewis, a registered nurse with clinical experience in oncology, hematology and end-of-life care, and her team explored birth stories of autistic women to understand how they make sense of the experience of childbirth. Accounts of poor communication, untreated pain and sensory overload dominated the birth narratives, as study participants expressed feelings that their concerns were minimized, their wishes were ignored and they were left out of critical communication and education during the birth process. Participants also emphasized the struggle they experienced when their own autistic traits, such as sensory sensitivities, were out of balance with the birth environment, impairing their ability to communicate with providers and participate in the birth.
The study concluded that nurses could help improve the birth experiences of autistic women by providing thorough and nonjudgmental education about the birth process; trusting women’s reports of pain and anxiety; and making environmental adjustments to help minimize sensory overload.
The study results pose a new challenge to conclusions of previous research documenting delayed bonding between autistic mothers and their babies, Lewis adds.
“In the past, we've just assumed that these early parenting outcomes are directly related to autism, but our study sheds new light on the severe trauma many of these women face during childbirth that may lead to detachment and postpartum depression,” Lewis said.
Lewis will receive her award at the 2022 Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses convention in June.