Parenting a child on the autism spectrum can be very rewarding, however, it also comes with unique challenges. Some of the unique differences that parenting a child on the spectrum can bring are feelings of isolation due to anti-social behaviors that are often extreme and aggressive; the need for constant routine and daily repetitive tasks; communication challenges and the constant fight to advocate for our children within the education, legal and medical systems. Our lives are often guided by our child’s needs and the truth is, as special parents, we need to have extra stamina and energy to keep up with these ongoing demands.
In 2012, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the impact that parenting a child on the autism spectrum can have on mothers’ stress levels. The results were shocking: hormone levels were consistent with chronic stress. The researchers compared the blood work to that of soldiers on the front line of combat.
The largest concern with these finding is that at least 70% of all illnesses have been linked to stress and as special parents we don’t have time to be sick. Maintaining our own health and well-being are paramount so we are fully available to deal with the extra demands that our daily life puts upon us.
So what can we do to take control of this and counterbalance negative stress in our lives? We need to develop a stress reduction plan that works for us; one that is practical, doable and fun!
When I was just 24, I burned out from executive stress. What seemed like a total disaster at the time has gone on to be the greatest gift I ever received. Now, as the mother of two boys, each with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), one whom is on the autism spectrum, I understand that this early ‘health hiccup’ was building my resolve. It allowed me to develop a tool-kit of strategies that I could use, not only for myself, but also share with others who find themselves with a special needs child to support.
Empowering ourselves and increasing our health levels requires us to begin with developing awareness of our current stress levels and how it is impacting us. This is the first step in consciously creating a self-care program that will sustain your health and well-being. As Albert Einstein said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Stress Symptom Check List, do you recognize yourself?
- Muscles aches
- Heart palpitations
- Increased sugar, coffee or alcohol use
- Crying spells
- Feeling like no-one cares
- Loss of meaning
- Inability to forgive
- Lacking purpose
- Whirling mind
- Negative self-talk
- Lashing out
- Lack of intimacy
- Fewer contacts with friends
Don’t panic if you ticked most items on this list. When I was suffering from stress burn-out, I had an even longer list of symptoms due to total exhaustion with adrenal burnout. I struggled to walk up stairs, my physical pain was intense and my emotional state fragile. So now as the mother of a special needs child and experienced stress management consultant I know firsthand the importance that stress reducing strategies play in my life. It was this passion to support others from avoiding the impacts of negative stress that propelled me to write the Thrive Now Blueprint – Self-Care and Success Strategies for Parents of Special Needs Children. In this book you will discover simple ideas and exercises to support you in reducing stress fast. The list below includes some of my favorites:
- Forget the ‘Shoulds’
We all hold beliefs of what we “should” be doing or what our life ‘should’ look like. If we actually examine the belief behind the ‘should’ it is usually outdated.
To begin to shift this for yourself, start to take note of the ‘shoulds’ you use on a daily basis. Are they serving you and your family? Or do they add to your stress? Awareness is key to making positive changes that increase your well-being.
- Stimulate Your Brain
Our lives are filled with extra responsibility and increased routine. Neuroscience shows that our brains need change and stimulation to support our well-being. Engaging in activities that you enjoy or are challenging, releases positive endorphins into your body. If you notice yourself saying ‘I’ll have my usual’ everyday – change it up!
- Stop Tension NOW!
Chronic stress affects your health, yet it doesn’t happen overnight. It is brought about by the accumulation of many stressful incidents that never allow the body to rebalance itself back to a relaxation response. Practicing short relaxation exercises throughout your day will reduce this build up. It’s not rocket science but it is science as recent research finally proved the link between stress and illness. Try taking five deep slow breaths every hour to begin a simple yet effective practice.
- Create Community
We can become isolated if our children exhibit anti-social behavior. Add that to the fact that when we are under extra stress our tendency is to retreat and become hermit-like. Although we often need this time to nurture ourselves be mindful of balance. Connection, hugs and friendship are essential.
Create community that supports you even if it isn’t close to home. Attend workshops with like-minded people; find support groups where other parents gather, invite people over for a coffee morning. Chose to stay connected!
Awareness is key to reducing stress and increasing well-being. As the Dalai Lama says, it is important to be “Wisely Selfish.” Make space for yourself, breathe deeply, take time to relax and be gentle on yourself.
Siobhán Wilcox is a stress management expert, best-selling author and speaker. Originally from Ireland she now lives in Encinitas, CA. She is passionate about supporting fellow parents of special needs children. Her transformational book ‘Thrive Now Blueprint’ is available on Amazon and Kindle. To date she has supported the Special Olympics in Europe, Kids Included Together and other non-profits and special needs groups around the world. Visit her site www.SiobhanWilcox.com to download free gifts and discover more about her upcoming ‘Special Moms Tribe’ Spa Events and Mentoring Programs that she is co-hosting with fellow author and autism specialist Chantal Sicile-Kira.
This article was featured in Issue 38 – Keeping ASD Kids Healthy