4 Ways Counseling Can Benefit Autism Spectrum Parents

boy with frustrated mother in backgroundRaising a child on the autism spectrum can be one of the most rewarding and yet taxing things some parents will ever experience.

I know.

In addition to being a therapist who works with families affected by autism spectrum issues, I, too, am a spectrum parent. Many of the people I help in my practice ask me how I am able to do it, as if I have some kind of secret or special ability they don’t. Honestly, it was my own journey in counseling—as a person in therapy—that helped me the most and gave me the skills I needed to navigate this challenge. It’s also why I decided to become a therapist.

As spectrum parents, we become adept at researching, finding, and financing all the right therapies for our kids, but we also have a tendency to neglect our own needs. In order to survive this parenting journey, seeking professional help may be necessary at some point.

Here are four ways counseling can help a parent of a child on the spectrum:

1. Adjusting to the Diagnosis

The autism diagnosis itself is often traumatic for parents. It can be a grueling process that may take up to a year or more, with multiple visits to several different professionals. During the process, parents are typically faced with myriad feelings, including anxiety, guilt, excessive worry, hope, and fear about the future. Oh, and a lot of waiting. Many parents end up being told that their child does not qualify for an autism diagnosis and are left at a dead end, with more questions than answers.

Diagnosis or not, the grief is very real. Often, an understanding of the grief stages, and the knowledge that grief is cyclical, helps parents adjust. Everyone reacts differently to grief, and how one reacts has a great deal to do with what happened and whether they’ve dealt with it appropriately. A person may need therapeutic interventions such as cognitive restructuring or EMDR therapy to help them get past the shock or pain of the initial diagnosis.

2. Parenting Skills

Parenting a child on the spectrum can be very different than parenting a neuro-typical child. There are sensory issues to consider, educational decisions to be made, medical interventions, safety concerns, and therapeutic decisions, to name just a few. More often than not, these children also have accompanying health conditions and self-regulation difficulties. Parents can become incredibly overwhelmed and confused when faced with it all.

A counselor who is well-versed in the needs of autism spectrum families is crucial. Such a professional can help parents prioritize needs and reduce the anxiety associated with overwhelm.

I often tell couples that a diagnosis of autism doesn’t ruin a relationship, but their response to it might.

3. Staying Connected to Your Partner

It has been reported that parents of children with autism have a slightly higher divorce and marital discord rate than parents of typical children. That certainly comes as no surprise, as the stressors are generally greater. I often tell couples that a diagnosis of autism doesn’t ruin a relationship, but their response to it might.

Autism tends to shine a bright light on whatever issues were already there. A counselor who understands the constant stress autism places on a family can help a couple navigate the difficulties while staying connected.

This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s process that takes time, patience, and perseverance. But the results are worth it. There is no doubt in my mind that counseling saved my own marriage.

4. Stress Management

Stress is a significant factor in the development of disease. It can literally make us sick.

In order to stay healthy, we need to learn to manage stress effectively. The daily stress of an autism parent is tremendous and constant. A counselor can help by offering a caring, supportive ear, validating parenting efforts and encouraging self-care skills. Counseling can help someone through a rough patch or be used on an ongoing basis throughout the parent’s journey. Some of the parents I help keep me on speed-dial for help during tough times, while others have attended therapy regularly for years as their child has grown.

It is said that we cannot give out of an empty cup, that we need to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. If you are the parent of a child with autism spectrum, counseling can make a tremendous difference in how you play the cards you’ve been dealt. In the end, that’s a win-win for your entire family.

References:

  1. Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Doyle, W. J., Miller, G. E., Frank, E., Rabin, B. S., & Turner, R. B. (2012). Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 5995-5999.
  2. Hartley, S. L.Barker, E. T.Seltzer, M. M.Floyd, F.Greenberg, J.Orsmond, G., & Bolt, D. (2010). The relative risk and timing of divorce in families of children with an autism spectrum disorderJournal of Family Psychology 24(4): 449-457.
  3. Naseef, R., & Freedman, B. (2012). A diagnosis of autism is not a prognosis of divorceAutism AdvocateFall9-12.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, therapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ronald

    July 14th, 2015 at 9:45 AM

    We so often do not think so much about the needs of the parents but there is a great chance with a situation like this that the parents are going to need a whole lot of help, and that would definitely include some counseling to get them through all of this. I would not be surprised to know that the parents who receive this type of diagnosis for their children wind up feeling wildly unprepared and uneducated to handle it.

  • Lola

    July 14th, 2015 at 4:11 PM

    In many ways it can give you that lifeline to the outside world that you have probably been missing for a while

  • Rory

    July 15th, 2015 at 8:06 AM

    We all need someone to talk to in these situations, and a therapist for the parents can be such a wonderful outlet for them even when they feel like they do not have too many of those. We need to vent, we need suggestions, and we all need support, and I think that working with a counselor can be that person who can somewhat understand what you are feeling.

  • janeen

    July 15th, 2015 at 6:45 PM

    Ronald, Thanks for the comment. You’re absolutely right. That overwhelm can sometimes be crippling. Then it becomes even more difficult to get help for the child in need.

  • janeen

    July 15th, 2015 at 6:47 PM

    Lola, absolutely. Parenting kids on the spectrum can be very isolating.

  • janeen

    July 15th, 2015 at 6:49 PM

    Rory, very well stated. I completely agree. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lynne

    July 16th, 2015 at 12:06 AM

    Thank you for this, you are so right on so many levels, I am a counsellor in my last year of training and also a parent with a child on the Autism Spectrum. Once I qualify my specialism will be autism working with not only the children but their parents and siblings too. There are only a handful of counsellors in my part of the country who will work with ASD kids as they really have no understanding or knowledge of this condition.

  • Julian

    July 16th, 2015 at 11:43 AM

    How could it not help? This is not someone who is going to point out everything negative that this could entail, but who can help you be more open to seeing the good things that can come from it.
    Is it ever going to be an ideal situation? Of course not, we all know that. But there can be something so rewarding about having a child with special needs and seeing the myriad of ways that they can change your life in a beautiful way in the same way that you can for them.

  • jeff

    July 17th, 2015 at 11:02 AM

    It could be especially useful since there are many couples for whom this becomes more of a challenge with their marriage than what they ever thought that they would have.

    They have this idea in their heads of what marriage will be like, but then you throw in all of these little kins that they may not have bargained for and that can lead to some marriage difficulties.

    Having a counselor there to help you work through some of this can be an excellent tool.

  • janeen

    July 17th, 2015 at 6:49 PM

    Lynne, you’re very welcome! SO nice to connect with other professionals doing the same, much-needed work. Please let me know if I can do anything to help you in your journey to help others.

  • janeen

    July 17th, 2015 at 6:51 PM

    Julian, absolutely. Many of the parents I treat are able to see the hidden blessings that come from hardship. It’s what gets them through the difficult days. Thanks for your comments.

  • janeen

    July 17th, 2015 at 6:55 PM

    Jeff, I absolutely agree. I’ve found that autism is often a leavening agent that shakes up the marriage and brings all the “stuff” you haven’t dealt with yet, right to the top. And the couples that deal with the “stuff” before it deals with them, seem to have the most success keeping their marriage together. It’s certainly not an easy task. Thanks for your comments!

  • Tori

    July 21st, 2015 at 5:11 PM

    I am sure that being a spectrum parent is the thing that helps so many other parents trust you and get so much from you.
    It can be easy for someone to be on the sidelines and spouting out this information and that, but to receive that from someone who knows first hand what it can be like is priceless.
    You understand what they are going through, you know their thought and feelings, and you know what can work and what won’t/.

  • janeen

    July 23rd, 2015 at 9:11 AM

    Tori, thank you for your affirming words. Yes, I find that parents are often comforted knowing I am living the same life. Even though every child is different, my specialty is giving them a perspective on how to take care of themselves and keep their family together and healthy.

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