Stress – something parents in general are all too familiar with. There is the physical stress from carpools, preparing meals, bathing, homework, shopping, and so on. This is compounded by such psychological stressors as parent-child conflicts, not having enough time to complete responsibilities and concern regarding a child’s well-being. When a family has a child on the autism spectrum, unique stressors are added.
An individual with autism may not express their basic wants or needs in the manner we would expect. Therefore, parents are left playing a guessing game. Is the child crying because he/she is thirsty, hungry, or sick? When parents cannot determine their child’s needs, both parties are left feeling frustrated. The child’s frustration can lead to aggressive or self-injurious behaviors that threaten his/her safety and the safety of other family members (e.g., siblings). Stereotypic and compulsive behaviors concern parents since they appear peculiar and interfere with functioning and learning. If a child has deficits in social skills, such as the lack of appropriate play, stress may be increased for the family. Individuals lacking appropriate leisure skills often require constant structure, not a feasible task in the home environment.
Finally, many families struggle with the additional challenges of getting their child to sleep through the night or eat a wider variety of foods. All of these issues and behaviors are physically exhausting and emotionally draining for families. For families of children on the autism spectrum, these can be a particularly difficult challenge. Scheduled dinnertimes may not be successful due to the child’s inability to sit appropriately for extended periods. Bedtime routines can be interrupted by difficulties sleeping. Maladaptive behaviors may prevent families from attending events together – for example, Mom might have to stay home while Dad takes the sibling to his/her soccer game. Not being able to do things as a family can impact the marital relationship. In addition, spouses often cannot spend time alone due to their extreme parenting demands and a lack of qualified staff to watch a child with autism in their absence.
Taking an individual with autism out into the community can be a source of stress for parents. People may stare, make comments or fail to understand any mishaps or behaviors that may occur. For example, individuals with autism have been seen taking a stranger’s food right off his/her plate. As a result of these potential experiences, families often feel uncomfortable taking their child to the homes of friends or relatives. This makes holidays an especially difficult time for these families. Feeling like they cannot socialize or relate to others, parents of children on the autism spectrum may experience a sense of isolation from their friends, relatives and community.
For information on how to deal with stress, read Stress: Take a Load Off.