My son with Aspergers syndrome just turned ten. That means I’ve been a special needs parent for over seven years.
As I sat down and thought about how I cope, a few basic principles came to mind.
- Learn how to speak to your child. I wrote an entire blog post on this recently. How and what we say to our special needs child can make a big difference. For example, many children with developmental delays have difficulty with who, why, and how. If I ask my son “Why did you like that?” most times I get “I don’t know.” If I reword my question to “What did you like about that?”, then my chances of getting an answer greatly increase. Additionally, most often our kids benefit from short sentences and fewer words. There are lots of things fighting for their attention—the scratchy sweater, the dishwasher noise in the background, the pattern of your shirt. Cut back and you’ll have more success. Finally, you may have to learn to talk in a different style. When my son was younger he was very good at tuning me out. I learned if I sang I got a faster response, because it was a different voice and he also wanted the singing to stop.
- Think ahead. This is one of the first coping strategies I had to employ. You’ll need to think ahead to possible scenarios and determine how to handle them. Let’s say friends invite you to go to a museum. You’re going to ride along with them. You probably want to pack extra snacks to avoid a hunger-related meltdown. You’ll also want extra clothes if your child might have an accident or if your child flips out if something gets on his clothing. Add in a calming toy in case sensory overload happens. And what will you do if your child needs a quiet space? Do you need to ask for suggestions when you get to the museum? What happens if your child is inconsolable but you can’t drive off? How will you handle it? Now, this necessary evil comes with a warning. Try not to be too bossy as you develop your skill in this area. I once had someone ask me if I had control issues. I was inadvertently bossing other people in other situations. Learn from my mistake!
- Release expectations. When I was younger, a wise newly-married friend told me not to have expectations when I got married. She explained, “If you don’t have expectations, you won’t be disappointed.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that. It’s hard for us as parents not to feel the pressure of what other people think. I’m still learning that. [Tweet “When we feel pressured to make our child meet others’ expectations, things tend to go poorly.”] Now, I don’t mean we ignore teaching our children how to behave in public, for instance. However, if your child is not at a point where he can wait in line for thirty minutes, why force him to do that if it’s just an extra activity? Why not suggest an alternative or say you’ll sit this one out. We also have to adjust our own expectations, and that’s hard. My son is ten but he’s obviously not like his peers. I need to be sure that what I’m asking him to do is reasonable for him. I have to ask myself, “Have I given him the tools to handle this situation?” I admit, it is often hard to determine what is stretching my child for his good and what is pushing him beyond what he can handle at the moment.
- Make connections. Special needs parenting can be lonely. More than likely, most of your friends, at least your in-real-life friends, will not understand what you’re going through. You need to find a way to connect with other special needs parents so you can get ideas and encouragement. If you are able to find a support group, great! If there isn’t one in your area and you have the ability, consider starting one. There are many special needs parents who connect online. I have friends all over the country whom I’ve never met. These people will become your lifelines on hard days and cheerleaders on great days. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are all great places to look. Use hashtags on Twitter and Instagram to connect. You can find groups on Facebook. You may also find online forums dedicated solely to your child’s diagnosis.
- Use the Power of One. I don’t know about you, but there are many days as a special needs parent I hope we all simply survive. Of course, it’s not always like that, but my experience with autism has shown that progress and setbacks ebb and flow. Over the years I’ve used what I call “the Power of One”. Boiled down, the Power of One means to focus on one thing. Just one. Get through that, celebrate, and pick one more. Tell your child who can’t focus to pick up one type of toy instead of saying, “Clean your room.” Don’t get overwhelmed by your to do list. Choose one thing that will remove the most stress and do it. During a horrible day, find one thing to be thankful for and change your focus.
These five tips have helped me through the ups and downs of autism parenting. I hope they help you as well. Did one tip stick out to you the most? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
PLUS, be sure to follow along with Coping Skills for Families Living with Autism.
Jenny Herman wants to live in a world where dark chocolate dispensers reside on every corner. As a homeschooling special needs mom, she’s been featured in Autism Parenting Magazine, Wit and Wisdom from the Parents of Special Needs Kids: Mostly True Stories of Life on the Spectrum, and various blogs. If she survives the onslaught of testosterone in her home, she may take a moment to blog, read a book, try a new recipe, or loom knit a gift.
You can find Jenny’s book The Power of One: Change Your Perspective, Change Your Life on Amazon. Discover her tips for special needs parenting, hands-on homeschooling, and pressing on at jennyherman.com.