An autism diagnosis can be challenging for a family. Often, the people affected most are the couple who are parenting the child on the spectrum. When my own son was diagnosed in 2001, my husband and I embarked on an arduous journey. It was not only a journey to help our son reach his full potential, but also an opportunity for our relationship to mature and change for the better. This journey happened before I became a therapist, and it was the impetus for my going on to become one. In my practice, I now help couples achieve the same development. So many therapies and interventions are readily available to autism families, but they are primarily centered on the affected child. Here are a few ways I’ve seen couples counseling benefit the parents specifically.
The Top-Down Approach
There’s a saying here in the South: “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” I’ve found that statement is often true for these couples as well. When parents are dealing with their own issues as a couple, their parenting typically becomes easier. The ability to make decisions, to react appropriately, and to set limits and boundaries for their children can be less stressful when they find support in one another. This is true of any family, but it is even more crucial for the autism-affected family, as their stress tends to be compounded by lack of sleep, health concerns, and the pressure of making decisions that may affect the child’s growth and education.
Children with autism can be extra sensitive to the emotional state of those around them. So when the parents ignore their own emotional and relational needs, the child may have more difficulty coping in the household. Additionally, self-regulation is typically a challenge for kids on the spectrum, so if a parent has not learned how to manage their own outbursts, it’s unlikely the child will either.
Processing the Grief
In my office, the first place I start with a couple is in processing their grief. Couples who have received a new diagnosis of autism for their child are usually in a tremendous amount of emotional pain. This is an experience they did not necessarily sign up for, and adjusting to it can be difficult. In my experience as a parent, my son developed typically during the first year and a half of his life and then regressed. This was both confusing and heartbreaking, as it caused me to question my parenting ability.
The primary area where I see couples struggle is in feeling alone because the other person isn’t “on the same page.”
Grief is generally the source of the couple’s pain and an area that many parents need to be encouraged to venture into. This is where the counselor can be extremely helpful. From a therapist perspective, I like to start by asking about the diagnosis experience. Having each parent tell their story of how it unfolded can have tremendous benefits for the relationship, as it tends to move that grief process forward. Few people ask parents what it’s like for them, and the diagnosis experience has been identified in the research as one of the most difficult. It can even result in posttraumatic stress reactions (Kuhn 2006). This grief also tends to be cyclical, as it may come back around during different times of maturation in the child’s life. A counselor who is aware of these issues can help a couple navigate these rough waters.
Making Decisions Together/Getting on the Same Page
The primary area where I see couples struggle is in feeling alone because the other person isn’t “on the same page.” Often this can be due to being in different stages of the grief process. But it also can come as a result of ineffective communication skills or poor relationship boundaries. I’ve heard comments in my office such as, “If my husband would only read this book I just finished, he would understand our son better!” or, “If my wife would just give our daughter a good spanking, she would behave in the grocery store!” While these statements are not only (in my opinion) untrue, they are also indications the couple may be more interested in being “right” than “connected.” Or perhaps they don’t feel they are being heard.
Since autism encompasses multiple areas of functioning in a child, there are many areas where the couple’s opinions can collide. Special diets, deciding between therapies, and discipline strategies are just a few of the areas where my husband and I have collided. However, it was often less about the decision to be made and more about our own “stuff” that had been there all along. Once we learned how to set healthy boundaries with each other, to communicate effectively and respectfully, and to nurture one another’s needs, we could make these decisions more effectively and without resentment.
Finding a Counselor Who “Gets It”
I’m often told by the people who come to me for help that they feel better just knowing I’ve been where they are. While it is true that a shared experience can be helpful, it is only one of many things a counselor can bring to the table. When looking for a counselor who can help most effectively, it may be best to find someone who has good clinical couples counseling skills, who is licensed to do the work, and who has a few additional skills in the areas of grief, parenting, and even trauma. Someone who specializes in autism spectrum issues would be ideal, but clinicians specializing in coping with chronic illness also have the skill set necessary to help you navigate the autism road. The designation is less about autism being identified as an “illness” (although some of these children have multiple health issues), but rather the self-care and life-balance skills these clinicians incorporate into their specialty.
In the 20 years we’ve been raising my son, I can honestly say the road has not been easy, nor has maintaining a healthy marriage. But as clichéd as it may sound, it has made my husband and I better people, and our relationship has improved as a result of the work we have done. I’m not sure if we would have been able to get here without that pain, but what I am sure of is we wouldn’t have made it alone. Autism cannot be faced without support, and counseling is one of the things that helped us get where we are today.
Kuhn, J. C., & Carter, A. S. (2006). Maternal self-efficacy and associated parenting cognitions among mothers of children with autism. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76(4), 564-575. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0002-94184.108.40.2064
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