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5 Tips for Autism Parents’ Self-Care

Family on a nature walk

Written by: Joshua Sleeper

These days it’s easy to find blogs and articles on self care suggestions and strategies that cheerfully encourage us to Exercise daily! and Get 8 hours of sleep! While well-meaning, of course, for parents of children with autism, these self care basics can sometimes feel more like lofty dream-come-true-level wish lists than attainable goals (“8 hours of sleep? No problem, I get at least that much in a week!”).

5 Self-Care Tips for Parents of Children with Autism

Let’s first start with why taking care of ourselves matters. It’s easy for parents to prioritize their kids’ needs above their own but we need to remember the airplane analogy: you need to put your own oxygen mask on first otherwise you’ll be limited in how much you’re able to help others. Here are five self-care tips for parents of children with autism.

#1: Know Your Oxygen Mask.

Think about it or better yet, make a quick list (since stress makes us forget the things we know, lists can be helpful reminders): what are the activities that help you refuel and bring you the peace, comfort and energy you need to be your best self? You can think big (a vacation alone) but also think of smaller daily opportunities like calling a friend, keeping a daily gratitude list, spending time outside. Some other memory joggers for you: What type of music brings you the most joy? What activities make you completely lose track of time? As a parent of a child with autism, make sure you continue to add activities in your life that bring you happiness.

#2: Double-Task, Not Multi-Task.

Many contemporary social psychology studies have revealed we all think we’re better at multitasking than we actually are. So for this week only, run your own experiment where you stop multitasking and start double-tasking. What’s the difference? Multi-tasking is two or more tasks that are similar and require the same type of effort. Writing this blog post while simultaneously checking my email or phone when it pings is an example; this type of split attention will actually slow down all of those tasks because of the time lost to transferring attention and orienting to each task. Double-tasking is combining tasks that require different types of effort; returning phone calls while you walk the dog, listening to an Audible book on your commute, taking your lunch break outside at a park, or walking while you work on a trendy new treadmill desk are all great examples.
You can also think of it as “task-bettering” by finding ways to combine an enjoyable oxygen-mask type of activity with something neutral or less preferred: watching your favorite TV show or listening to your favorite music while you wash dishes, fold laundry, or pay bills.

#3: Pay attention to the things you want to see increase

—that’s it! I won’t even ask you to collect data (although as a behavior analyst, I’m required to note that you’ll capture better results if you do). See how many times you can make your child laugh before school. Feel grateful for your health and all of the amazing systems in your body that are functioning well. Appreciate your partner for making you coffee or taking the garbage out. Look for ways to celebrate all of the good around you and incredibly, you’ll find more of it.
While we’re at it, see if you can also notice the constant chatter that’s going on inside your head. There is a little non-stop narrator that lives inside each of us and talks all day long. You know the one I mean. I’m not going to suggest you try to quiet that voice because I promised easy tips. What is possible is turning the voice into a kinder one.

#4: Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a good friend.

So when you spill coffee on your shirt as you’re late running out the door—before your inner automatic narrator calls you an idiot—and ask yourself what you’d say to a friend in the same situation. Perhaps something along the lines of, “Oh, sweetie—that’s rough. At least you’re starting the day with a story to tell.” When your child is having a full blown Meltdown at the grocery store, on an airplane, or one of the other notoriously inconvenient public places to be stranded alone with a tantruming child, imagine what you’d say to a good friend. Maybe, “I believe in you and you are going to get through this. P.S. you are a superhero.” This takes awareness and practice so when you slip up? Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a good friend.

#5: Ask for help

…and be willing to receive it. I had to save this one for last; if it had been first you would have thought, “that’s not easy” and moved on, right? This suggestion is the hardest but also the simplest. Take a look at the list of things you have to do this week and see what could be outsourced or shared. Or see where you could add in something from your oxygen-mask list if only you had a little help with the logistics. Get creative. It might mean looking into respite services, hiring a neighborhood teen to help with yard work or letting the grocery clerk actually help you out to your car when they ask.

You’re worth it.