Raising an individual on the autism spectrum comes with its challenges and blessings. Parents have to process the diagnosis and determine what approach to take regarding their child’s health.
They have to learn how to navigate through the medical care process, schedule therapy providers, and plan for special education with their school districts. Their plate is full! With all the planning comes stress, emotions, and worries. What can parents do to help manage and cope with their stress levels? How can couples work through the difficulties of raising a child with autism?
Research shows families raising an individual with special needs are at a higher risk of stress compared to other families. Stress is seen as the beginning of issues amongst couples, families, siblings, and caregivers. Unresolved stress levels may turn into anger, frustration, and resentment, which in turn affect how family members feel about and interact with each other.
After reviewing over 20 research articles and determining commonalities, I have been able to compile 3 major factors that tend to cause stress levels to rise amongst families raising an individual with special needs: perception, expectation, and fear. I would like to ask you to take some time and participate in a few exercises that can help you understand, acknowledge, and process stress.
Step 1: What is your current and present perception of life?
Begin by looking at your life as a big picture. Are you happy in general? Do you feel satisfied? Slowly begin to think more specifically. For example, are you happy with daily things like work, home, or your health? Do you tend to be more pessimistic and negative or optimistic and positive?
Our first step is to take a good broad look at our perception of life. Why do you have a negative perception and how does this affect your daily moods? When stress levels rise you tend to view any small speedbump in life as a major obstacle.
You wake up late on a Monday morning and rush to work. While rushing to get ready you stub your toe on the corner of your dresser. As you speed to work you get pulled over by a police officer. When you finally get to the office you forget you had a meeting that already started. All these events make you think you are doomed for a bad day. But why? Here is where step 1 begins. This is where we need to be able to recognize we are basing the mood of our entire day on a few morning emotions rather than using those same negative emotions to remind us to be grateful and mindful.
We woke up late BUT we are grateful to have employment. We got a speeding ticket but are grateful there were no accidents due to the speeding. The point is to be able to recognize when your perception is negative, use the negative emotions to produce grateful responses, and continue your positive thinking by being mindful of your day, who you interact with, and how you can be a positive influence on others. This tactic can be used with any negative perception. Try it!
Step 2: What is your current and present expectation of life?
Begin by looking at your life as a big picture. Have you accomplished your goals and dreams? Slowly begin to think more specifically. For example, does your spouse or partner live up to your expectations? Do your children? Does any of your stress come from failed expectations? Our first step is to take a good look at our expectations in life. When our expectations do not pan out we tend to see it as a personal failure, or if someone fails to reach our expectations we feel disappointed.
Both of these instances will eventually turn into resentment towards ourselves for failing or towards other people for failing us. Here is where step 2 begins. This is where we need to recognize that our expectations in life were set by ourselves, not someone else. We also need to recognize that expectations in life can change and adapt based on our current situation.
Changing or adapting your expectations is not failure, it is adapting to life and what life gives you. We use communication to overcome expectation. For example, you have been at work all day and can’t wait to come home to a cooked dinner.
You get home and there is no dinner, the house is a mess, and the kids are running around. You are disappointed because there is no dinner and all you wanted was peace and quiet. This is a perfect time to think about communication with your spouse or partner. Instead of thinking about yourself and the disappointment you feel for him/her not having dinner ready for you, think about him/her and the potential day he/she had and how tired he/she may be.
Communicate with each other and see what can be done so things can be accomplished. Remember, expectations are our own and we can’t put our expectations on someone else. We need to communicate to better understand rather than get angry. A conversation amongst couples can help shed light on the situation.
Are there things that can be done prior to or done together to assure dinner gets done? Does one person need help more than the other? By communicating your thoughts, feelings, and emotions you are removing your own expectations and starting to learn to be open to others’ needs and to communicate with them.
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Step 3: What are your current and present fears in life?
Begin by looking at your life as a big picture. What fears are the strongest? Slowly begin to think more specifically. For example, what is your biggest fear regarding your kids? Does any of your stress come from fear? Our first step is to take a good look at your fears and how they tend to originate from the unknown.
For instance, how will your child do in school? How will your child adapt to new environments? Will your child be safe as he/she gets older and moves to new schools? What happens once your child turns 18? Will your child be able to work and live on his/her own? Here is where step 3 begins. Fear tends to start with the unknown. In order for you to combat the unknown you must work on getting informed. As you get informed you build confidence and reduce your fears.
When you reduce your fears you tend to focus more on the important things in life. If you feel worried about the unknown of school and your child then you can inform yourself about the policies the school has on parents visiting the school and classroom. If at any point you feel uneasy you know that as parents, you can pop in and pay a visit to the school.
If you are afraid of the future and your child being able to live on his/her own then you can prepare by seeking resources regarding employment placement for individuals with special needs. You can start looking into housing for adults with special needs.
You can work with organizations and social workers within your community to inform yourself of resources and programs available to you and your child. Prepare for things you have control over so that the unknown is less scary. Prepare for the benefit of your child so your stress levels stay low. Become an advocate for your family by informing yourself of what you can plan for so you feel better prepared.
The American Psychological Association defines stress as the feeling of being overwhelmed, worried, or run-down. Stress can affect people of all ages, genders, and circumstances and can lead to both physical and psychological health issues. Our biggest weapons against stress are our own minds, our own perspectives, and our own psychological wellness.
This article was featured in Issue 95 – Managing Autism Together