submitted by Marissa Stabler, Communications Intern

Laura Shumaker anxiously lingered in traffic. It had become clear she would be late for a meeting with her son’s developmental disabilities program. The meeting was at 3 p.m., followed by another meeting at 4 p.m. with Matthew’s psychologist—across town. And in order to make it home for her youngest son’s high school talent show, she needed to be on the road by 5 p.m.—at the latest.

“My heart was racing,” wrote Shumaker. “Just as I started wondering if I could figure out a way to be [in] two places at once (I actually thought I could figure it out), my phone rang.”

“I’m in a seriously bad mood. No one understands me,” Matthew told his mother. “After your meeting, can you take me out for pizza and french fries? Please?”

Research indicates that parents of children with autism experience greater stress than parents of children with intellectual disabilities and Down syndrome.

“When you have a child with special needs, you learn to live with a lot of stress and you throw yourself into your everyday job as a parent,” explained Robert Naseef, Ph.D., a psychologist who works exclusively with families with special needs. “If you work outside the home, you work even harder – and you don’t think much about taking care of yourself.”

Responses from the 2003 National Survey of Children’s Health indicated that parents of children with autism are more likely to score in the high aggravation [parenting] range than parents of children with other developmental problems, special health care needs, and those without special health care needs.

“We are overwhelmed with managing our grief, grinding though assessment and therapy appointments, managing peculiar behavior, adjusting to strange sleep patterns, paying for therapy, and balancing it all with the needs of the rest of the family,” Shumaker wrote. “We’re trying to make each moment a ‘teaching’ moment and we are running out of steam.”

Managing stress is important for both you and your family. You’re more susceptible to physical and mental disorders if you are regularly exhausted and overwhelmed.

“Figuring out coping skills and how to have a decent life in the process is pretty crucial,” said Naseef. “If you have no happiness or contentment, how can you expect your child to feel happy or content?”

Shumaker offered these “STRESS busters” that have helped her cope:

1) REDUCE your load. … Pare down your commitments to one or two a day, and give yourself PLENTY of time in between. Scheduling anymore than that is not only stressful, it’s dangerous. You are more likely to go around a corner a little too fast if you are in a hurry or STRESSED.

2) Be selfish, not selfless. Everyone needs you RIGHT now, but they can wait. You won’t be able to give much of yourself if you are burnt out.

3) Learn to say no. Someone else can drive on a field trip; someone else will be happy to assemble gift baskets for the auction. If three therapy appointments a week are pushing you to the edge, just do two. Pare down.

4) Find a great helper, one that you really like. This was one of the best things I ever did. I hired mostly college guys who could double as mentor[s]/ friend types and babysitters. They will help you solve the ‘being [in] two places at once’ problem.

5) You need sleep. If your child is keeping you up, discuss the issue with his pediatrician. If worry is keeping you up, discuss the issue with your doctor.

Child-Autism-Patent-Café.com advises to be creative when it comes to reducing stress. Try one or more of these approaches:

  • Prayer
  • Exercise
  • Deep breathing / relaxation exercises
  • Writing in a journal
  • Keeping a daily schedule of things to accomplish
  • Advocacy
  • Individual, marital or family counseling

How did Shumaker solve her stressful day of traffic, meetings and phone call from Matthew?

1) She told Matthew she would call him back.

2) She got off the freeway and called Matthew’s program and his psychologist and told them there was too much traffic and that she’d have to reschedule.

3) She called Matthew, who was already in a better mood, and told him she would see him another day.

4) She got home in time to go out to dinner with her husband and her son before the talent show.

5) And she had a good night’s sleep.
Remember, it’s important to take action now for the future. Because, ultimately, when you’re the parent of a child with autism, even high-functioning autism, you’re in it for the long haul.

Click here for more information, resources and strategies for families to cope with stress.

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