When I was scrolling through my Facebook feed at Starbucks a few weeks ago, I noticed a friend of mine had shared an article about autism and parenting on her page.
It was about parental fatique, and it really struck a cord with me.
I already knew from experience that sleep deprivation can have some pretty negative effects on mood and behavior and cognitive functioning, but I had no idea there’s a link between autism and poor sleep quality.
I didn’t realize that children on the autism spectrum are more prone to have difficulty falling asleep – and staying asleep – and that they tend to sleep less overall compared to neurotypical kids their age.
I spent the bulk of that morning researching why kids with autism have trouble sleeping, and after learning how impairments of the body’s circadian rhythms, abnormalities in melatonin levels, an inability to understand social cues, feelings of anxiety, sensory processing issues, etc. can make sleep impossible for a child with ASD, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to autism and parenting and the subsequent caregiver fatigue it can result in.
Autism parent burnout is a real thing.
While it’s human nature to put the needs of your child before your own, there is only so long you can live in a constant state of stress and fatigue before your body starts to break down. You will eventually become anxious and irritable, depressed and withdrawn, and start to lose interest in the things that are happening around you. Life will start to feel like an uphill battle, and you’ll eventually start taking your feelings out on the people you love.
Will you do this on purpose?
But we live in a day and age where we feel as though we’re not allowed to ask for help, and since few people truly understand the challenges autism and parenting presents to parents and caregivers on a daily basis, taking a break ends up feeling like a luxury rather than a requirement.
But what if I told you it doesn’t need to be this way?
What if I told you it’s not only 100% okay to take time out for yourself, but that’s it’s essential for the well-being of your family?
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition, and your child’s success with various treatments and therapies is very much dependent on your involvement. And I’m not just talking about the physical involvement of driving her here, there, and everywhere. I’m referring to the emotional part as well. The part that requires you to engage with therapists and teachers and nutritionists and get onto your child’s level and connect with her so she feels like there’s at least one person in this world who is on her side.
By ensuring you are at your best, both physically and emotionally, you are giving your child the most important gift you can give her: YOU.
So, how do you do this?
How do you fight caregiver burnout before it takes hold and sucks the life out of you?
Here are 8 ideas to get you started…
Getting 8 hours of solid sleep each night is difficult for the average parent, let alone those who have children with special needs and sleep disturbances, but few people realize just how important it is.
Chronic sleep deprivation leads to a whole host of health issues, like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke, and it has negative effects on weight gain, cognitive impairment, and symptoms of depression. It can also zap you of energy, increase your feelings of frustration and irritability, and make you more emotionally volatile.
If finding the time to sleep is challenging for you, consider:
- Trading off with your spouse for night wake-ups/weekend sleep-ins
- Scheduling time for cat naps while your child is in school, therapy, or engaged in quiet activities at home
- Going to sleep and waking up at the same time as your child each day
- Hiring help (i.e. respite care, babysitter, etc.)
If finding ways to fall asleep – and stay asleep – is difficult for you, consider:
- Sticking to a strict sleep routine
- Getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol
- Unplugging from electronics at least an hour before bed
- Establishing a predictable bedtime routine
- Seeking professional help to discuss supplements (i.e. melatonin) and stress management
Prioritize and plan ahead.
Take time to write out your goals each day. I learned this trick via The Productivity Planner, and it has completely changed my life. The idea is to identify 3-5 actionable tasks to focus on and then block off time to focus on ONE item from your list before moving onto the next, allowing all of the other, unimportant stuff to slide.
By honing in on one specific task rather than many ambiguous ones at the same time, you prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed and failing into the deadly trap of ‘Analysis Paralysis.’ When you use your time more efficiently and effectively, you will have a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of each day and feel much more in control of your life.
Seek respite care.
Whether your little one struggles with meltdowns, picky eating, and sensory challenges, or needs more extensive care like changing diapers or administering medicine, finding ways to get a break can feel impossible as you can’t just call a family member, friend, or one of the neighborhood kids in to sit with your child when you need help. The good news is that most countries offer some form of respite care for parents of special needs children. From drop-off programs to individualized care workers inside the home, there are lots of options available and most offer some sort of tax relief. It can take time to find someone you and your child like and trust, but the short-term pain is well worth the long-term gain!!!
At the end of each day, try to think of at least one good moment that made it all worthwhile, no matter how small or inconsequential it might seem at the time. Write them down in a gratitude journal, and in your harder moments, look back through your entries to find some peace of mind. Keeping an attitude of gratitude will help you to feel grounded and thankful for the things you have rather than angry or bitter about the harder moments of your day.
Eat well and exercise.
As irritating as it is to hear people preach about the importance of eating a well-balanced diet and fitting at least 30 minutes of physical activity into your day, we almost always feel better when we make good choices in the health and fitness space. Not only do we have more energy, but we also sleep better and enjoy lower levels of stress, and we start to like the reflection that stares back at us in the mirror each morning.
Dietary changes are easy – all you need is a big dose of commitment and a hell of a lot of self-control – but finding the time to exercise can be challenging. Trust me, I know! The good news is that we live in a day and age where at-home workouts are available for free on YouTube, so there really aren’t any excuses.
Find a hobby.
While it might seem impossible to find the time to work on a hobby or project of your own, finding something you’re passionate about outside of being a parent and spouse can do wonders for your soul. Enroll yourself in pottery lessons, teach yourself how to knit, take a cooking class, or do what I did: start a blog! Whatever you choose to do, make time for it. You will be amazed at how much better you feel after spending time doing something you LOVE to do rather than drowning in laundry, bills, and dishes all day, everyday.
Take a break.
Yup. I’m serious. Once you have some form of respite help in place – whether it’s through an accredited program or in the form of help from trustworthy family or friends – schedule time away where you can focus on yourself. Get a manicure, go for a massage, or schedule a night away with your BFF so you can drink wine and watch chick flicks. And do not feel guilty about it! You deserve some time away, and you will feel much more relaxed and rested when you get home, which will have a positive impact on the care you are able to offer your family.
As much as these ideas can help reduce your risk for burnout, there may come a time when you’re so worn down and overwhelmed that you just cannot get out of your slump. If this sounds like you, I urge you to get help. Talk to your doctor about your concerns and ask if he can recommend a therapist to help you deal with all of the stresses on your shoulders. As scary as this may sound, it can be extremely therapeutic to unload your worries onto a stranger, and he or she may have some stress-reducing techniques you can use to lift yourself out of your funk and find the joy in all life has to offer again.
Being the parent of a special needs child isn’t easy. Not by a long shot! It’s difficult and overwhelming, but if you play your cards right, it can also be extremely rewarding.
My challenge to you today is to stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, and be brutally honest with yourself. What 3 things can you start doing today so you feel less overwhelmed by all life has thrown at you? Do you need more sleep? Could you benefit with an extra set of hands around the house once in a while? Does your diet need an overhaul? When was the last time you practiced a little gratitude?
Charles R. Swindoll once said, ‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.’
So, what’s it going to be?
Are you going to keep drowning and complaining and being miserable, or are you going to make a commitment to make yourself a priority in your life so you can be a better mom and wife to your family?
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