Raising a child on the autism spectrum can be one of the most rewarding and yet taxing things some parents will ever experience.
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.
- 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.
- 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 disorder. Journal of Family Psychology 24(4): 449-457.
- Naseef, R., & Freedman, B. (2012). A diagnosis of autism is not a prognosis of divorce. Autism Advocate. Fall: 9-12.
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