Autism Spectrum Disorder and Family-Stress

"I have two boys, one of which has ASD [high functioning autism]. My husband has been diagnosed as well. I often feel like I'm in a constant state of playing mediator (and sometimes feel like I'm parenting 3 children, rather than 2 children and one adult). Is this common for families like ours, and what can I do to reduce our stress?"

Being a member of a family in which one or more members have ASD Level 1 or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can be extremely stressful at times. Sometimes it seems as if the entire family focus is on the "special needs" child and on the various tantrums, meltdowns, and other and behaviors that come with it. ALL family members can feel a low level of anxiety in anticipation of what could happen next.

Are you too stressed? Ask yourself these questions:
  • Are symptoms of stress impeding my functioning?
  • Am I finding it hard to get through the day's activities?
  • Am I having a hard time eating, sleeping, or getting up in the morning?

Discipline for an autistic youngster is often very different than the way you would discipline a neurotypical child. So a parent is often left feeling helpless and not knowing what to do, and feeling they have nowhere to turn in getting a break from parenting. In fact, a lot of moms and dads actually feel guilty for even wanting a break, let alone taking one.

The idea of a few hours away from their youngster makes them feel as though they are failing him or her as a parent. For some reason, some parents feel that to parent their "special needs" youngster, that means being around him/her and caring for him/her 24/7 without any outside help.

As one wife/mother stated:  
"Being the only neuro- typical is a nightmare! My life has never been mine to live as I want. You lose yourself to keep the peace. Believe me when I say: Living like this can scar you for life. You never blossom because you are in a constant compromising caregiver position. Married for 25 years without empathy from anyone is sheer agony. I used to be the crazy emotional one; that side of me got squashed along with any dreams or expectations of loving behavior. This is my life. I will always be married to an Aspergers spouse and a parent of 2 ASD adults." 

If you're exhausted and overwhelmed on a regular basis, you're more susceptible to physical and mental disorders. You may need time and help to recharge your batteries and find coping mechanisms. And it's important to take action now for the future. After all, when you're the mother or father of an autistic youngster, you're in it for the long term.

Take steps as a parent to take time for yourself away from the situation when things feel overwhelming. Take turns with the other parent so you each have peaceful times away from the situation. When possible, spend one-on-one time with the other children in the home. This will reduce their stress level as well.

Get plenty of sleep. If your ASD son has difficulty sleeping, speak with his doctor to find ways to help him sleep better so you can get your sleep, too. Don’t be afraid to take naps so you have enough rest to cope with whatever comes.

Don’t skip meals and eat as healthy as you can. If your son is on a special diet, make sure that the rest of the family - and you - get the type of nourishment that suits you best and revives your energy levels.

Consider exercising with or without your son. Take walks or bicycle rides to calm your nerves and increase your body’s endorphin levels. Stress levels automatically decrease with exercising just a few times per week.

Hire a competent babysitter, get family to help, or  ask a friend for help! The point is this: Get out of the house alone or with your spouse for a few hours and enjoy yourself. You can’t change any of the issues your son may have, but you can get a break. You can get out a few hours a week alone to unwind and you can get help to allow you to get that much needed break.

Some herbal supplements like kava kava, valerian root, and St. John’s Wort have relaxation and calming properties. In serious situations, these herbs can come in handy when you just can't seem to stem the anxiety on your own.

If the family appears to be in crisis over the stress and anxiety of some of its members, family therapy can be very helpful. Individual therapy is also an option for those family members needing extra help. Often the therapist can coach you in the coping skills necessary to stay healthy and to raise your HFA child as best as is possible.

An experienced professional can help give you concrete ideas for finding time and space for yourself. He or she can also work with you to develop specific coping strategies. Changes in attitude can make a big difference, and there are many ways to work on your own feelings. It may also be helpful to have an appropriate time and place to let out pent-up frustration that's so often a part of coping with a youngster who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The main thing parents with an autistic  youngster need to know is that they are not alone. There is help out there! Even if you are a single mom raising kids alone, there is help. It's up to the parent, however, to realize that it's not a sign of failure as a parent to need and accept help in caring for the autistic child.

Children on the autism spectrum are special indeed – and we love our children very much. But we as moms and dads need to be able to unwind and relieve the stress so that we are better able to parent. Never feel guilty for needing to ask for help - or needing time for yourself! Bottom line: If you're not the person you normally are, then that's a reason to get help, or at least consider that possibility.

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...