As a parent our needs are often the first to be postponed or set aside. Sometimes there is no choice: we have to attend to the immediate needs of our children. But in the long run we could be doing significant damage to our physical and emotional health by not attending to our own needs. And if our health and emotional well-being is compromised this is likely to have an impact on how well we are able to care for our children.
As parents of children with ASD we often are so focused on their needs we shortchange our own, and we tend to underestimate the effect this can have on everyone around us. Skimping on our own self-care can make us irritable, exhausted, and unhappy.
Any parent can fall into the habit of neglecting his or her own needs, but for a parent raising a child with ASD the risk of self-neglect is likely to be much higher. There is a common saying, supported by research that: "If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen ONE child with autism." The same holds true for the parents of children with ASD. Each parent’s experiences can be vastly different because the symptoms of children with ASD can be so different. This difference can add to the stress and loneliness that the parent may feel, because friends and relatives are unable to fully comprehend the unique challenges taking place within a particular family.
While there is little research on parents of children with ASD in terms of self-care issues, we do know that parents of children with ASD report feeling that their needs are not well understood, and these parents report higher levels of stress, depression, and lower levels of quality of life, even when compared to parents of children who have other types of special needs.
While practicing self-care is not a panacea, it can have an enormous beneficial impact on quality of life for anyone, and can be absolutely essential for the parent of a child with ASD. Use the following sets of questions to assess your own success in practicing self-care strategies and then keep reading for some techniques to help you get back on track.
Answer "Yes" or "No" to the following questions. Keep a tally.
- Are you getting enough exercise every week? While the ideal is to get 150 minutes of physical activity each week, even a ten-minute walk or twenty sit-ups can make a difference.
- Are you sleeping enough hours every night? Most adults need 7 to 9 hours to feel rested.
- Do you have an annual physical scheduled every year and do you attend to any other medical needs you have?
- Are you making, for the most part, healthy eating choices and eating regular meals?
- Do you try to spend some time, even ten minutes, outdoors every day?
- Do you spend time with friends every week? Even on the phone or email?
- Do you have adults in your life with whom you can express your emotions and concerns at least a few times a month? This could be a therapist, partner, minister, or close friend.
- Do you know what makes you feel happy in terms of self-care and are you occasionally able to make time for things that make you happy? This might involve walking on the beach, talking with a friend, getting a massage, doing yoga, or watching a fun comedy on T.V.
- Are you able to carry through with ways to reduce stress in your life such as saying “no” to taking on more responsibilities than you can handle, spending less time with a family member that you do not get along with, or incorporating a five minute meditation into your daily life?
- Can you ask for and receive help, especially respite care for your child?
Spiritual Self-Care (Religious or Non-Religious)
- Do you find time to immerse yourself in something you enjoy: working on an art or craft, gardening, enjoying a hobby, keeping a journal?
- Do you attend a place of worship, meditate regularly, or find other ways to openly practice your beliefs? This could be as simple as reciting a poem or prayer before dinner.
- Are you able to bring humor into your day-to-day life?
- Do you spend time in nature?
Renewal and Growth
- Are you open to learning or trying new things: new ways of approaching a problem or new ways of understanding something?
- Do you have strategies in place for expanding your world? This could be improving a skill or hobby like knitting or carpentry, or reading books or watching videos on a topic that interests you outside of your every day world.
- Do you have dreams or long-term goals and have you planned small steps toward implementing them?
Ok, add up the number of "no" answers you have given.
If you had more than a few "no" answers, don’t despair. Most parents find it difficult to take time for themselves.
Now, take a deep slow breath. I’m serious. Breathe in while counting slowly to five, breathe out while slowly counting to five. Now, look back over the list and choose one area that you want to work on, just one.
Next, open up a new document on your computer, or pull out a piece of paper, or a journal and answer the following questions. This is your mini self-care plan to follow for the next two weeks.
|1. From the list above, what is an area that you think you could improve on?||Sleep|
|2. What is your current practice with regard to this area?||I often stay up too late and then feel revved and have trouble falling asleep. I also drink caffeine late in the afternoon and I’m sure this contributes. Also, sometimes I sleep poorly because I worry a lot about the future.|
|3. What are some new strategies you could try?||
|4. Set a date two weeks from now to review these strategies. Do they need to be adjusted? Are they working? If not, try getting help from the resources listed below.||
Just by taking a few steps – reading this article, writing down your intentions – you can increase your feelings of hope and well-being. The very act of starting to think about self-care is, in itself, an act of self-care that can help you recognize that your needs are important and it feels better to address them.
While making changes to your life is never easy, taking these first few tiny steps in your plan and following through with them will help you understand how beneficial these actions can be for your mental and physical health: even a ten minute outdoor walk every day, a plan for a friend to take care of your child for 30 minutes while you take a long hot shower, or joining a parent support group can make a huge difference. Once one of your routines has been changed and is incorporated into your daily life, try to devise a plan for a second act of self-care.
While many of us feel guilty attending to our own needs, in fact, you will be a better parent, partner, and friend if you can sometimes make your own needs a priority in your life. Start today.
Resources for Self-Care:
Research on Parents of children with ASD indicates that two essential and successful coping strategies are to find regular respite care for your child and to join a parent support group. Resources for those two items can be found here:
- Arch Network Respite Locator: http://archrespite.org/. Provides online database of respite providers in your area and provides information on how to pay for respite via Medicaid Waivers and state funding sources.
- The Child Autism Parent Café provides resources for respite care: http://www.child-autism-parent-cafe.com/respite.html.
Parent Support Groups:
- Online parent support groups: http://www.childrensdisabilities.info/autism/groups-autism-asperger.html
- For an autism support group in your area Google search the name of your town or state and "autism parent support group." See also: Advice about Finding a Support Group: http://theautismblog.seattlechildrens.org/autism-and-parent-support-groups/
Books on Self-Care Specifically for Parents of Children with ASD
- The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide (For Dad’s Too!): Creating a Full and Balanced Life while Raising a Child with Autism. http://www.amazon.com/Autism-Moms-Survival-Guide-Dads/dp/1590307534
- More Than a Mom: Living a Full and Balanced Life When Your Child Has Special Needs. http://www.amazon.com/More-Than-Mom-Balanced-Special/dp/099373930X
- Thrive Now Blueprint: Self-Care & Success Strategies for Parents of Special Needs Children. http://www.amazon.com/Thrive-Now-Blueprint-Self-Care-Strategies/dp/0990576604
General Resources on Self-Care
- From Coping to Thriving: How to Turn Self-care into a Way of Life. http://www.amazon.com/Coping-Thriving-Turn-Self-care-into-ebook/dp/B00EHBWG2S/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1442681133&sr=1-1&keywords=from+Coping+to+Thriving%3A+How+to+Turn+Self-care+into+a+Way+of+Life
- Self-Care Starter Kit from the University of Buffalo School of Social Work. (Free Web Site). http://socialwork.buffalo.edu/resources/self-care-starter-kit.html