I have four teenagers, and the youngest has autism. Is survival possible? Yes, it really is. I know people who’ve come out on the other side sane. Here are some survival strategies that have helped us stay the course of turning our woes into “whoas.”
- Listen to music. 80’s, disco, easy listening…create a playlist of your favorites and have them at the ready. Turn it up, sing loud, dance crazy, and feel the difference. Music has a profound effect on both the body and emotions, and the chances are good that you can even drown out the tantrums happening in the background.
- Cry in the shower. Nothing feels better than a good cry or a hot shower. Combine them. You don’t even need tissues. And no one will hear you over the exhaust fan.
- Find a hobby. I like to crochet, read, and paint. To each his own.
- Get a pet. Fish are peaceful to watch and relatively low-maintenance. Cats are soft, playful, and bathe themselves. They can be left for days and don’t care that you are not there to entertain them. I have fish and two cats. It might say something about my level of stress, the fact that I need both! I also have a dog. While my pooch is not as low-maintenance as the fish and likes more attention than the cats, she is loyal, loves me unconditionally, never talks back, doesn’t bite me, and wants nothing more than my affection, which is more than I can say about my son with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) most days.
- Indulge yourself guiltlessly. At the end of a long day—or even in the middle of one—eat chocolate, drink a glass of wine, get a pedicure, indulge in a Frappuccino, or go hit a few golf balls.
- Girls’/Guys’ Night Out. Go to a restaurant or concert or to a girlfriend’s for a chick flick. Do it at least once a month. Justify it by affirming that it’s cheaper than psychotherapy. Dads, go golfing, fishing, shooting at the range, or to a ball game. Take care of each other by encouraging the other to get out, get away, and take a break.
- Date your spouse. Watching reruns on the couch after the kids are sleeping doesn’t count. GET OUT! It doesn’t matter where. Just go. Don’t talk about your kids while you’re out. Hold hands and make out, even. You can, and you should! It’s healthy. Lips are filled with nerve endings and receptors that send signals to the brain and lead to a sense of calm that results in the hormone oxytocin and endorphins being released. The results are stress relief, relaxation, and a lowered blood pressure.
- Date your kids. Go on mommy or daddy dates with the siblings of your kiddos with ASD. They need to get out, too. By default, your child with ASD gets the majority of your attention. Whether or not you mean for him/her to and no matter how hard you try to spread the love, it just happens. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s also not fair. It is what it is. Take siblings for a snack, to the mall, to a park or playground, or to a baseball game. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do. Don’t answer non-emergency phone calls or text on date nights. Don’t run errands. Don’t talk about the other siblings. This time is all about the one child you are spending it with.
- Don’t major on the minors. Jeremiah hates his hair brushed and goes to school with his shirt (and sometimes pants) backwards or inside out. I. DON’T. CARE. He is dressed. There are bigger fish to fry.
- Join a gym. Exercising improves your overall health and mood, boosts your level of energy, and promotes better sleep. Going gets you out of the house. Win-win.
- Get it out of your head and onto the pages of a book no one else will read.
- Find the humor. It’s there. It’s either laugh or cry and, while sometimes crying feels necessary, laughing feels great too, and it’s often contagious. Take responsibility for harvesting happiness. And face it, when your teenage son with ASD asks Siri if she has “boobies,” it’s funny.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Perfection is overrated and unachievable. I mess up daily—hourly even. I can curl up on the couch in the fetal position and sob uncontrollably, or I can brush it off, suck it up, get right with whomever I blew it with, and have another go at it. Living in the past paralyzes the present and bankrupts the future. Move on.
- Focus on truth. Negative thoughts tear us down, beat us up, and rob us of joy. I am the worst mom ever. We will still be wiping Jeremiah’s bottom when he’s 30! True? No. Well, the butt-wiping remains to be seen, but hopefully not. So why dwell on things that aren’t true and you don’t have the power to change even if they were?
- Get counseling. Counselors are trained to impart wisdom about coping mechanisms and the grief stages of ASD parenting, and they are good listeners. It’s good to get another person’s perspective or objective viewpoint, someone who does not know you or your family dynamics or history. And your kids love you and don’t want to add to your stress level or hurt your feelings, so they often bottle up their own. Get them the counseling they need now before they’re airing it on Dr. Phil someday for everyone to hear.
- Get connected. Get to know other ASD parents, commiserate together over other survival strategies, and form babysitting co-ops. NO ONE knows or understands what you’re going through more than another ASD parent. Whether or not you know them, there is a connection, a bond. You are kindred spirits in this journey. Even if your children have different disabilities with varying degrees, you can still relate to one another’s struggles, circumstances, challenges, and lives. Search the Internet for local support groups, check social media, or call children’s hospitals or therapy centers to ask about groups. Look for special needs sports leagues near you. And if you still can’t find a group of ASD parents, start your own! If you build it, they will come!
- Serve others. You are exhausted at the end of each day and have limited “free” time after ASD parenting, but this is critical to your perspective. It’s easy to get so “me-focused” or “your-kid-focused” that you become ingrown, only able to see what’s going on in your life. That’s where self-pity creeps in, along with bitterness and resentment at the rest of the population for their “typicalness.”
Make dinner for another ASD family. Volunteer to help someone clean out their garage. Wash your neighbor’s car while you’re washing your own. Hold doors open, pull out chairs, help carry groceries to cars, pack moving boxes. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. Just serve.
- Go out without your child with ASD. As Jeremiah has become increasingly difficult behaviorally, fun outings have been harder to achieve. Excursions meant to be enjoyed are spent chasing after a moody, wandering teenager, diffusing meltdowns over having to wait in line or sit quietly, and watching his siblings shy away in embarrassment. In the end, we miss out on fun and memorable times…well, fun anyway.We occasionally leave Jeremiah with a sitter while we take the others somewhere that would cause him stress anyway. We relax, have fun, and laugh. By the end, we are ready and even excited to get home and see Jeremiah. And guess what? He needed the break from us too. He had a great time with the sitter and could care less what we did without him.
- Practice thanksgiving. In 2001, I started my first thankful journal. It’s one of the four that are full of daily thanksgivings in my life since then. I’m thankful for the hand-me-down clothes. I’m thankful for the rain watering my plants. I’m thankful for naps!
There are more difficult to discern entries on days where I have to sit down and really reflect to find the nuggets of gratitude to journal about. The day Jeremiah had his grand mal seizure, for example. Deeper digging was required. But I’m thankful Jeremiah was on the couch so he didn’t fall and hurt himself. I’m thankful for friends who babysat so we could be at Jeremiah’s hospital bedside. Hard as they were to detect initially, once I did, the cloud of despair over the events lifted. Gratefulness is relevant to survival.
Days wrought with behavior challenges? I’m thankful for the lady in the checkout line who patted my shoulder sympathetically instead of shaking her head in disgust and disbelief at Jeremiah’s behavior. I’m thankful for Melatonin. Soon, peace overrides. Thankfulness and a grateful heart are inextricably linked to experiencing peace. Peace is mandatory for survival.
There you have it. Survival-of-the-fittest ASD parenting begins here. This list is not exhaustive. Add to it. Get to it. Your life depends on it!
Tara is a homeschool mom with four teenagers. She and her husband, John, live in Tampa, Florida. It is Tara’s passion to encourage other ASD parents through her transparency in sharing details from their own story…the good, the bad, and the ugly. She recently published her first book on Amazon Kindle entitled The Rainbow-Colored Grass on Our Side of the Fence. To learn more about Tara and her family, visit www.rainbowcoloredgrass.com.
This article was featured in Issue 54 – Surviving Family Challenges