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How This Simple Shift in Mindset Has Helped Me Better Support My Child With Autism

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“Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” — Eleanor Brown

When my son was 4 years old, I had a light bulb moment.

He attended a private kindergarten class within a daycare. It was all the way on the other side of the city, but it was a great facility. The staff was caring and attentive, and they were willing to accommodate a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). On this particular morning, I had to drop my son off at daycare, and then drive into Toronto for a meeting. My son did not sleep well at night and he was difficult to wake in the morning. He required (as an occupational therapist would say) “a full-assist” with his morning self-care routine. And it was winter; I was dreading the drive.

The staff at the daycare was great at engaging my son, and he would usually only show some mild concern when I said goodbye. But this morning was different — it had been a tense start as I rushed to get us out the door, and my son, undoubtedly, sensed my stress. As I began to leave the daycare, he began to wail. The saddest cries that you have ever heard. Even the staff, who must have been veterans of the teary farewell, all stopped and stared. Then they shook off their surprise and started to shoo me away. But in that moment, I felt his cries, I felt them in a way that I can only describe as visceral. It was agonizing. They were my son’s cries, but they were also a reflection of my innermost feelings. Our personal opera of sadness.

I was crying as I left the daycare and got into my car. I was bawling by the time I pulled onto the icy, snow-filled highway and joined the bumper to bumper traffic in what amounted to a tear-filled, two-hour car trip to traverse 68 kilometers. Had there been an audience present during that two- hour ride, my performance may have been described as histrionic. My feelings were complicated. It was devastating to hear such sadness from my son, and as his mother it felt like my responsibility to solve his despair. I did not lament the fact that he was attending daycare. It was a good place for him, and he was demonstrating slow but observable developmental gains. Everything just felt hard in that moment — autism felt hard, and I felt that I was completely failing as a parent. My son sounded so desperately unhappy and I had no idea how to fix that.

I was nervous returning to the daycare at the end of the day. What if he had been inconsolable the entire day? When I walked in, the staff greeted me in their normal fashion, and I saw my son bouncing around the classroom with a smile on his face. They told me that his cries had stopped within minutes of my departure of the classroom. Go figure.

This is not an uncommon story. But for me it was a light bulb moment.

I had spent my work day crying, feeling like a failure, and racking my brain as to what else I could do to make my son a happier, more content human being. How could I “fix” his autism? What new therapy, new diet, new book, new conference did I need to pursue next? On the other hand, my son had spent the day in a cheerful building with his peers and engaged adults, playing with toys, coloring, cuddling with his favorite teachers, and listening to stories. All appearances indicated that he had been largely content while doing so.

At that moment, I had the realization that I needed to shift the focus from my son and start considering what would make me, his primary caregiver, a happier, more content human being.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison research study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders demonstrates that mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress comparable to combat soldiers. Children with disabilities may have debilitating challenges, and they often experience some pretty tough days. As a parent, we internalize the suffering of our children. Some of the challenges, such as meltdowns and/or extreme reactions to difficulty processing sensory input (for example: head banging and biting) are traumatically stressful for both parent and child.

Our children with disabilities are often sensitive and intuitive in an exceptional way. They know when we are stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out. They rely on us; they need us to be at our best, and they need us to model self-care.

How I Put Myself First to Better Support My Child:

  1. I decided to trust myself. Once I completed research and due diligence on a daycare, a school situation, or a new caregiver – I accepted that while no situation was perfect, my child was safe in their care. I no longer allowed myself to engage in useless, debilitating worry. Whether I was at work, or with friends, I concentrated 100 percent on what I was doing at the time, and frankly, I stopped worrying so much about my son.
  2. I decided to trust my community and let them pick up some of the slack. I looked into respite options, and I stopped feeling guilty about asking family to help out occasionally. I began to trust that other people were capable of caring for my son, and that they had attributes to offer him that I did not.
  3. I stopped priding myself on being a tireless caregiver, and I decided to treat myself with respect and kindness. I started thinking about the things that I love to do, and I became determined to fit them into my life.
  4. I started exercising and thinking about my diet. I noticed that when I exercise and eat well, I handle stress better and I am more focused and energetic. Exercise can also help if a parent is experiencing depression.
  5. I learned how to meditate. This was huge for me and life-changing. It was easy to fit into daily life. There are plenty of free apps to support this practice, and I believe everyone can find five minutes in their day for meditation.

When you love yourself and make yourself a priority, your child will reap the rewards.

Originally published: April 8, 2019
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