Life is never simple and things come up all the time for everyone including parents of autistic children and these adult problems can both impact on the wider family and test the reserves of the parent. Autistic people including children are well known for their observational skills and will notice that you are not feeling yourself but may not have the tools to read what the problem is and this will likely make them feel anxious. That anxiety can in turn lead to the child being more needing of support and so the already frazzled parent has even less reserves to cope. It can become a vicious circle so how can we as parents make things easier for ourselves and our children at times of personal hardship or crisis?
Over the last 7 years I have had some very turbulent times with bereavement, relationship breakdown and supporting friends through illness and found myself in this cycle on more than one occasion but that has given me lots of practice at the juggling act of protecting and supporting my son while acknowledging the difficulties and nurturing my self and my own needs. I have come up with some strategies which have helped I’d like to share.
- Be honest with your child as far as you can depending on their age and ability. Children have amazing imagination and often when they read something is wrong that imagination goes into overdrive, what they think might be going on may be way worse than what is actually happening so tell them what you can in a calm reassuring way, let them ask questions and answer as clearly and honestly as possible. Their response may just surprise you.
- Reassure them that it not their fault and you still love them very much. Children have a tendency to blame themselves when something is wrong in the family, they may feel you are being distant or that you care about someone else more than them because your focus needs to be elsewhere.
- Be aware the problem have impacts for them too. Children may be impacted by things happening even if seemingly it has nothing to do with them, autistic children most of all. Knowing someone is dying for example, even if they have never met that person, may make them worry people they love will suddenly die, relationship breakups maybe hard as they may of really liked that person or feel it is their fault. Look for hidden ways they may be affected as well as the obvious ones. Acknowledge their upset or loss even if it doesn’t seem like a big thing to you.
- Allow them to help if they want to and acknowledge when they have been helpful. For example if my son has had to on occasion go to his dads for an extra night so I could support a family member with cancer I would say ‘thank you, I know that was outside of your normal routine, it really helped me to help Nanny.’ It makes them feel appreciated and a that they have participated.
- Get a good counsellor. I can not stress this enough. You are the adult, you need to take care of your own mental health, there is no shame in asking for help in fact it shows that you are putting your whole family first by tending to your own emotional well-being. Think you haven’t got time for a counsellor? These days you can have counselling on the phone or internet without leaving home, make it a priority.
- Simplify things as much as you can, don’t feel you have to be a superhero. Buy a take out instead of cooking, get a dog walker or a cleaner on a temporary basis, buy shopping online and have it delivered. Getting a dishwasher changed my life! Maybe take some holiday time from work if you have any or ask for compassionate leave. Don’t worry if everything is not perfect for a while, it’s ok, you have other priorities for now.
- Tag team your partner if you have one. Taking it in turns to do parenting duties with your partner can take some of the pressure off, they may not understand the stress you are under or maybe the problem is one which affects you both, so tell them what need taking turns will give you both a break from everyday tasks.
- Ask for help. Parents of autistic children often cannot just get a babysitter but there maybe other ways friends and family can help. Picking up shopping, allowing you to talk, sharing the school run, having your other children if you have any for example.
- Take time out. Yes I can hear you all laughing at this one! I know, I know, you are already taking care of your autistic child or children, running the house, maybe working and you have a crisis to deal with but it is so important, you need to find moments in the day for you. A bath, a g & t in the garden, coffee with a neighbour, arranging to collect your child an hour or two later than needed, even sitting in the car by the side of the road and just taking a breath, it’s not selfish, you are the prop that is holding everything up, if you go down it all goes down, do it for them if not for you.
- Remember it’s not forever. It’s easy to get caught up in these events and see no end but it does end, life goes on and at some point you will look back and realise (relative) calm has been restored. In the meantime just keep on keeping on.