If you’ve ever been on a plane, you have heard the flight attendants tell you that if you are seated next to someone who might need some assistance, such as a child, an individual with limited physical or mental capabilities you should put your own mask on first, then assist the other person.
Can you relate this rule to your family and your child with a disability? This is a rule of thumb that parents of children with autism and other disabilities should apply to their day to day lives. Unfortunately, in the hectic schedule of families that have a child with a disability, this is something that is often overlooked or deemed unimportant. It is, however, a critical component to your family’s and your child’s wellbeing.
School, therapies, social groups, evaluations, and doctor’s appointments take up a tremendous amount of your time. Thoughts and worries about your child and his or her future may be the only things that occupy even more of your time. The shuffling around and chronic stress of worrying what the future will bring often results in parents not taking time for themselves, the other members of their family or their marriage.
There is a disagreement among researchers about the divorce rates of couples raising a child with autism and other disabilities. Some state that the rate is the same as the national average and some note numbers as high as 80%. There is no discrepancy, however in the research that parenting a child with special needs increases stress levels on both parents. Chronic stress can have a debilitating effect on a person. Depression, anxiety and lower immune function are a few of the results that will occur if parents under chronic stress do not take care of themselves.
When was the last time you did something alone, for yourself? Read a book that had nothing to do with your child’s disability? How about spending time with your spouse? Try to remember what you and your spouse talked about before you had a child with a disability. What did you enjoy doing together? What made you laugh? To best take care of your child, you must take care of yourself. You can do that by reconnecting with your spouse and with yourself.
When you have a child with a disability, it’s easier sometimes to just focus on the “doing” and it can be hard to slow down. Slowing down and taking time for yourself when you are not trying to solve all of your child’s problems often means dealing with your own feelings of fear and guilt. It can be easier to just keep moving because dealing with those things can be difficult and painful. To continue on this path, however, is to allow those things to slowly chip away at your physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Stop and think, are you burning the candle at both ends? Sometimes we need to slow down to move forward.
How are you other children fairing? I had a father recently ask me if it was ok that he wanted to do something alone with his neuro-typical son. He was admittedly feeling guilty about wanting to do things with his son that his daughter with autism was unable to participate in. Not only is it ok, it is critical for your child without a disability to have quality, uninterrupted time with you. Without this time with parents, siblings often appear as if everything is ok, but are surely experiencing inner turmoil. Siblings often have feelings of jealousy, embarrassment, anger and even resentment, coupled with a tremendous amount of guilt due to these feelings.
An RDI® program is a unique approach to treating autism and other developmental disabilities in that it treats not only the person with the disability but recognizes the effect that the entire family is profoundly affected by the disorder. Your RDI® consultant will help you look at the needs of all of your family members and put into place a plan to normalize family life. An RDI® approach values you, the parent as the most important and influential person in your child’s life. You will look at your family’s schedule and prioritize the weekly activities that you and your child are engaged in. Your consultant will help you to understand that “more” is not always “more.” You will identify opportunities for quality time to spend with your child with a disability as well as your other children, yourself and your spouse, improving your entire family’s quality of life.
Parenting is hard. Parenting a child with a disability is incredibly hard. It is not only ok to take time for yourself, it is critical. It will most definitely help you become a better parent. Your child with autism or other disability is a priority. You must however, take care of yourself and the relationships around your child.
Who will help your child with their oxygen mask if you are suffocating?
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Contributions to this blog are made by Celebrate the Children's highly talented, interdisciplinary team and wonderful families.