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How Can I Parent My Autistic Child?

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Updated December 17, 2010

Question: How Can I Parent My Autistic Child?
How can I parent my autistic child? My husband and I feel like the world's worst parents. Our nine-year-old autistic son pushes us to the breaking point daily. We try to manage his behaviors appropriately but often end up yelling or hitting. We know his behaviors are not his fault. But in the heat of the moment our best intentions are overwhelmed by nine years of frustration. We have talked to a psychologist for family counseling, but just got a lot of sympathy. We love our son and want to do a better job.
Answer:
From Dr. Bob Naseef:

Your yelling and hitting are the result of your frustrations with a situation that just isn't fair. Human hardship is not distributed equally, as Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner himself lost a child to a rare disease and knows all too well the struggles of parents. I remember myself how angry I was when my son was seven years old. I had a hard time accepting his autism and that he would need special services for the rest of his life. I walked around with a chip on my shoulder-- ready to rage and ready to cry;the tears were never far.

I appreciate your courage in leveling with how you feel. Anger, one of the most intense and least understood human emotions, and is probably the scariest and most socially unacceptable feeling to own up to. It often arises with the thought, "Why me? Why did this have to happen to me?" Losing something precious--the child you dreamed of--hurts and seems unfair. It is natural for parents to get frustrated and direct it at themselves, each other, the doctor, mercury, the local school district-- or your child who is hard to live with. Many people in your situation also feel guilty as you mention that your son's behaviors are not his fault.

It may help you to think about what other feelings you may have besides the frustration and the anger. Is there fear? Sorrow? Worry? What would be there if the anger vanished? Parents like you are trying to make sense out of what has happened - "If we are decent people, how could this happen to us?" I believe that parents need to allow themselves to experience anger, to cry, and to scream. It is all part of the grief. Indeed autism can be terrible, and it makes no sense. Trying to deny or minimize how hard it is to have a child with autism only prolongs the suffering you are describing.

Anger is a reflection of the hurt. Gaining perspective, along with time and compassion, can help to heal the heartbreak. It is probably worth another try to connect with a mental health professional who can guide you through this. If nothing else, our special children teach us patience with what we cannot change -- about them, with ourselves, and with the world around us.

From Dr. Cindy Ariel:

The first thing you have to realize is that you are not the world's worst parents. Your seeking of help and even writing to ask this question gives evidence of the facts you wrote: that you love your son and want to do a better job. Over time relationships develop patterns and sometimes these can be self defeating as in the relationship pattern that you are describing between you and your husband and your son.

In terms of behavior, yours and your son's, you and your husband can learn some straight forward behavioral techniques that will help you. It sounds to me like you could use some strategic guidance and not just sympathy. This can be gained through some good self help books on the subject or by trying once again to reach out to a mental health professional who is willing to both guide and support you through this difficult time and experience.

As with most negative patterns of behavior, it is likely that you promise yourself on a daily basis that this time you will not yell or scream or hit but at this point your relationship with your son ends up in the same place because none of you can figure a way out of the trap. That is where a third party can help you to see the options in your responses and actions toward your son. Things may need to be set up differently in your home to help you to optimize your relationship with your little guy. Your son may be reacting to things that many of us would not realize or understand. He himself may not understand or be able to let you know what it is.

You are not in this situation because you are bad parents or lack the skill in raising a child. You may lack some of the skill necessary for raising a child with autism and that is not surprising given the level of complications that children with autism may bring. Some of the habits and behaviors of children with autism could push any one of us to our breaking point. It is important to remember, as you stated yourself, that your son is not purposely pushing you to your breaking point, just as you are not purposely "breaking."What needs to be broken is this self defeating cycle and a new one set up that is positive and has all of your family members feeling positively about themselves and each other. You are on track for this sort of change.

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., are the co-editors of "Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People with Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom" (2006). On the web at Alternative Choices

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