As I write this post, I know in my heart that parent self-care is the single most important topic I have the opportunity to address as an autism specialist. It’s ironic that it happens to be about caring for yourself, rather than your child (where I spend much of my time).
I write this in the spirit of Thanksgiving on behalf of all the autistic children who may not be able to fully express their heartfelt thanks to you as well as they may like. If you have time, let’s start with a beautiful video by my friend, fellow autism specialist and parent of a not-so-verbal child who helped me write this post, Danelle Shouse.
If you’re a parent, sibling, or caregiver of an autistic child, you deserve a world of thanks. You’ve taken on one of the most difficult and enlightening journeys a human being can undertake. It’s a hero’s journey like no other, and I’ve heard it compared to many challenges, from being a superhero to front-line combat. I think it gets this comparison because parents of autistic children are often under constant stress and do sometimes develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In any case, the journey is often incredibly challenging, and this is why the topic of parent self-care is so very important.
It’s a simple formula. The more caring and loving you are to yourself, the more energy you have to be caring and loving to your child. It is too easy as a parent to completely neglect your own needs for the sake of your child. We’ve all done it, and it’s a noble effort indeed, with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, this may work in the short run, but in the long run it too often creates burnout and anxiety in the parent.
This burnout and anxiety is what can lead to the PTSD (we’d like to avoid) and turn an autistic child into a nervous wreck (yikes!). As many of you are likely already aware, autistic children have the uncanny ability to mirror the thoughts, feelings, and moods of their parents. Anxiety in you creates anxiety in them. Calmness in you calms their nerves too. Your autistic child wants you to take care of yourself, and as our story showed, sometimes they’ll do whatever it takes.
So what are the steps to giving yourself the special care you need as the parent of an autistic child, or any child with special needs for that matter?
1. Commit to giving yourself the same care you give to your child. You deserve it.
When you are raising a child with autism, finding a moment to yourself can almost seem unreachable. We know. This is why it takes a very sincere commitment on your part to finding the time to practice self-care.
If you’re inclined, take out a piece of paper and write in big letters, “I commit from this day forward to caring for myself with the same dedication that I have to my child.” Maybe stick it to your bathroom mirror for a daily reminder. You can also take a picture of it and make it your smartphone background. Whatever works for you. And keep the goal in mind: a calmer me creates a calmer household and a calmer child.
2. Recognize the signs that you need to show yourself some love
Autistic children are so sensitive to what is happening around them. They can sense when you are at your wit’s end even before you do. They know when you are about to blow. Just feeling the impending explosion of emotion can set them off, leaving you both in meltdown mode. If you can recognize the physical and mental signs that you need self-care before this happens, you and your child will both benefit. Here are a few things to watch out for, but please pay attention and find your own personal signs of need.
- Your muscles start to ache and get sore
- You start to get a headache
- Frustration and anger
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Your child being particularly challenging
3. Ask for help and give yourself some space, even if only for a moment
Sometimes it may seem like you’re the only one who’s fit to help your child, but please remember that you’re not alone. A commitment to self-care will require some help from others, and sometimes even your autistic child. The main thing you’re trying to create is some space to practice self-care, and you may need some help to do this. Here’s my best advice for willingly getting this help.
When you’re asking your partner, family, or friends for help, consider doing it in the most loving way possible. It always seems that people are more willing to help when you approach them softly and genuinely asking for help, even if in the back of your head you want to demandingly scream, “You’re gonna give me a hand here!”
Here’s some advice for communicating to your autistic child that you need some space to care for yourself. Take their hand gently in yours and see if you can catch their eyes. Warmly and calmly tell them that you know they’re having a hard time right now, but that mommy/daddy needs a little break. Trust that even if they’re nonverbal, they completely understand your need for self-care. They want you to do it. They want to feel you happy and calm.
4. Embrace the lows
In our culture we have a very hard time accepting emotional lows and the need for self-care. I know for myself and many of the parents of autistic children I work with, their biggest breakthroughs and insights happen during these most sensitive of times. When you feel low your body is telling you to slow down and consider new possibilities. This is actually a good thing, so why fight it? Give yourself some space, practice self-care, and open yourself to new possibilities.
5. Fill yourself back up by doing what’s calming and makes you happy
There is no secret formula here. Everyone enjoys different things. Listen to your heart and think about the things that calm you down and make you happy. For some, it’s taking a bath and reading, and for others, it’s taking a leisurely cruise on their Harley. When you get some space, do the things you enjoy to your heart’s content, and know that you very well deserve it! 🙂
I do realize that in some cases you may only get a minute or two of space to practice self-care. In those situations, there are some universal things that people enjoy. One is taking a few slow deep breaths. Slow deep breathing is nature’s prescription to get you out of fight-or-flight mode. It literally activates neurotransmitters that calm your nerves and gets stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, out of your system.
Another quick fix is kind self-talk. This may be a new or old concept for you, but I promise that if you repeat nice things to yourself with heart, you’ll start to feel better. Try repeating simple affirmations in your head, such as, “I’m a wonderful, loving parent and I deserve to set aside special time for myself.” Affirmations are one of many tools you can use to ‘reprogram’ your subconscious to support your life. If you find your mind filling your head with negative and self-destructive thoughts, carefully address them with logic, reason, and heart.
Make self-care a habit and watch everything change for the better
Repeat these five steps as a habit. Watch for the signs so that you can catch yourself before your self-care bank account gets too low. I’ve seen so many parents experience the benefits of self-care. It can completely change your household dynamic. After you’ve started practicing self-care on a regular basis as a habit, pay special attention to your child. You will see their moods, attitudes, and behaviors change for the better.
They will mirror your new vibrancy, and because you’ve made self-care a priority for yourself, they’ll start making it their priority too. They’ll be your little self-care helper. I expand more on these thoughts in my New York Times best selling (just kidding!!) free eBook, Autism Simplified for Parents. It’s a quick and easy read with tons of useful, actionable information that will make your parenting life easier.