There are a seemingly endless supply of books, magazines and apps dedicated to the practice of mindfulness and relaxation. They often come packaged in serene covers featuring flowers, sunsets or people looking wistfully out to sea. For parents of autistic children, this sort of imagery can make such self-care feel out of reach; the idea of devoting extended periods of time to being on your own feels like a total fantasy. In reality you have little, if any spare time in your daily routine and a child who can’t be left alone for any length of time. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to give yourself a little much needed love, they just won’t involve performing a perfect Downward Facing Dog on a beach in Bali. Looking after yourself is vital to protect your own physical and psychological health.
When you next find a spare moment, make a brew and take a step back from your life to draw up a list of the specific causes of stress; what are the pinch points for your own ability to cope? If this list appears never ending it can help to organise major issues into different categories, then break them down into manageable bite size chunks. Remember this is just a list and you aren’t going to eliminate every area of stress in your life. You will find however that there are at least some small things you can do to improve your situation. Identify any easy wins; tasks you might be able to pass on to a partner, friends or family. And if, during the course of making the list you feel like you need help, seek it immediately. Your child needs you, so prioritising your own physical and emotional wellbeing will protect them.
As the parent of an autistic child you’ll be very familiar with the importance of planning and routine. Why not make a little space in that preparation for yourself? Have a bag packed so you don’t have to turn the house upside down as you search for the essentials you need to get out of the front door. Make sure you leave enough space in the bag for a few things for you to do during any unexpected moments of down time. This might be a book or magazine, your sports kit, the knitting, your gardening gloves or just a pair of headphones – ideally it will be something you can pick up and begin to do straight away. But don’t overpack: the key to making this a success is to identify the essentials, you don’t want the bag itself to become a burden!
This one might sound like a bad joke for any parent of an autistic child for who bedtime is a major issue. If they aren’t sleeping, you aren’t sleeping and that can lead to problems for everybody. Long term sleep deprivation has a massive impact on your physical and emotional wellbeing and makes it hard to deal with everyday life. If this is your situation, identify moments when you might be able to catch up, such as when they are in childcare or when you have family over. Even if it’s just a nap, you’ll find coping with those everyday challenges that bit easier.
We’re not talking about staring into the abyss of social media. Instead, identify the people around you who form your support system. Cherish those family members who offer to help, accept the efforts of friends and be ready to relinquish control to the people you trust, it will give you a bit of precious ‘me time’. If you feel unsupported, why not ask friends, family and other parents you meet about their support networks. They might know about groups you could join or introduce you to new people who are going through the same thing.
Don’t eat to live, food is much more important than that. You know this already of course; you probably expend huge amounts of energy preparing nutritious food for your child. But what about you? Why not create a personal menu that is varied and enriching. If you don’t feel like you have enough time for this, there are other things you can do. Could you make time to batch cook new recipes? Or if friends offer help, ask them to cook you a meal that you can freeze in portions. Eating at the same times each day can also bring some much needed structure to your life. You’ll begin to feel the benefits almost immediately.
Often five minutes is all you have in the day for yourself. The good news is, this can be enough. At the beginning of the day set the alarm a little early or arrange for your partner to take over the childcare for a short period. You could use this time to take a shower, drink your coffee alone in the garden, even sit on the loo and practice some mindfulness techniques. In the evening take five to recognise what you have achieved during the day and then focus positively on any successes big or small. It’s easy to lose perspective and focus on the negative. Recognise each small step for the victory it is.
At Clinical Partners our specialist clinicians have years of clinical experience supporting autistic children, young people and their families to get the help they need to effect change and thrive. To find out more about the diagnostic process and support available, please call our knowledgeable triage team on 0203 326 9160, visit the autism hub, or listen to the latest podcast in our autism masterclass series for parents.