Managing the Stress of Autism

Posted on

Family in front of the San Diego Zoo.Most parents go through a lot of stress. Kids, as they develop their own personalities, are likely to do things that you as a parent don't want them to do. They make messes as they explore their world and skills, they don't see direct correlations between their actions and consequences, and they can be defiant when things are not going their way. That is the challenge of parenting, the nature of which is to teach your children the social limits to their behaviors and help them understand the consequences of their actions.

But what if your child is on the autism spectrum? What if your child can't understand the necessary social framework in which their limits to behavior should remain? Suppose your child is unable to comprehend a correlation between their actions and consequences? Instead of learning how to stay within socially acceptable limits of behavior, and constantly "act out" or throw tantrums through "meltdowns" because they can't communicate their displeasure in any other way. This is the stressful world of the parent with a child on the autism spectrum.

It's different for every parent, because every child with autism is different, but we all experience the same thing: stress. A parent recently asked Dr. Joti Samra of the Globe and Mail how they can deal with the stress of having a child with autism?

His response was very informative. First, he realizes that parents who have autism experience more stress and are more susceptible to negative outcomes than parents of children with other disabilities (Dunn et al, Moderators of Stress in Parents of Children with Autism, Community Mental Health Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1, Febuary 2001.). As such, they are more likely to fall into depression, social isolation, and have negative effects on their spousal relationship.

Next, he outlined ways to find relief from stressful situations, which was to find time for yourself. Take a run, take in a movie, meet some friends, do something you enjoy. My wife and I try to find time for ourselves when we can, whether it's meet up for lunch while the kids are in school or try doing something with the kids that we all will enjoy. Other things you can try is meditation, yoga, or tai chi. Whatever helps you relax and relieve your stress, give it a try.

Another part of dealing with stress is getting support from friends, family, and your spouse or partner. In fact, having support within the marital relationship has been found to be related to better personal and marital adaptation in families with developmentally disabled boys and to live satisfaction among parents of children with autism (Dunn, 2001). That may sound crazy in a world where marriage is in decline, and even then 41% will likely end in divorce according to the CDC, but it turns out that having spouses who is committed legally and emotionally to each other helps cope with the stressful demands of autism.

That fact resonated the most with me. Being married and having both of you support each other while feeling the stress and frustration of children with autism has been scientifically proven to be more effective than any other support group. Not that I'm saying isolate your family completely, but it is an encouraging statistic.

So what do we do? We spend a lot of weekends helping the kids experience their new city. We spend a lot of time at the beach, the tide pools, and by the ocean. At first it was a challenge with our youngest because of his fear of waves, but it's become a great therapy for our family. We also spend time at SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, Balboa Park, Point Loma, and exploring the many ethnic markets in the city. There are lots of other places we can explore, and with each new experience, we find ways to enjoy ourselves while keeping the kids stimulated and interested in their world around them.

At home, we spend time playing games, lots of tickling, and try to teach the correlation between behavior and consequences. It's often frustrating, but once in a while there is a glimmer of understanding, behavior modification, and lots of hugs. Without my wife, I don't think we would have gotten so far, and I like to think I've been of some help for her.

And in the end, we enjoy watching British Comedies as a family, which is a trigger to the kids to go to sleep. With an early bed time, my wife and I have some time to decompress, relax, and let the stress of the day work it's way out. It means early mornings, but so long as we get enough sleep, it works out.