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Coping with the Stress of Autism: When to Find Professional Help

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Updated June 20, 2007

Why Do Parents Need Help in Coping with the Stress of Autism?:

Of course, not all parents with autistic children are under stress. But most are. Robert Naseef, Ph.D., a psychologist who works exclusively with families with special needs, explains why parents with autistic children may need extra help: "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; if you work outside the home, you work even harder - and you don't think much about taking care of yourself."

Guilt, Anger, and Frustration May Add to Troubles:

Many parents with autistic children worry that they could or should have done something to prevent their child's problems. They also agonize over whether they could do more now. They feel angry at their circumstances, which set them apart from other parents, and frustrated that they can't enjoy family life and share in the ordinary activities as easily. All these issues can make day-to-day coping even harder.

What Is "Normal" Stress?:

"Some stress is to be expected," says Naseef. As long as you're sleeping and eating well, enjoying much of your day-to-day life, and finding support where you need it, your stress is probably not too overwhelming.

How Do You Know When Your Stress Level Is Too High?:

Ask yourself these questions: Are you having a hard time eating, sleeping, or getting up in the morning? Are these symptoms impeding your functioning? Are you finding it hard to get through the day's activities? "If you're not the person you normally are, that's a reason to get help, or at least consider that possibility," Naseef says.

Why Is Managing Stress Important?:

If you're exhausted and overwhelmed on a regular basis, you're more susceptible to physical and mental disorders. You may need time and help to recharge your batteries and find coping mechanisms. And it's important to take action now for the future. After all, when you're the parent of a child with autism, even high-functioning autism, you're in it for the long term. "Figuring out coping skills and how to have a decent life in the process is pretty crucial," says Naseef. "If you have no happiness or contentment, how can you expect your child to feel happy or content?"

How Can a Professional Help Relieve Stress?:

An experienced professional can help give you concrete ideas for finding time and space for yourself. He or she can also work with you to develop specific coping strategies. Changes in attitude can make a big difference, and there are many ways to work on your own feelings. It may also be helpful to have an appropriate time and place to let out pent up anger and frustration that's so often a part of coping with a child with special needs.

What's the Best Way to Find Help?:

It's important to find a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker who has specific experience working with parents of children with special needs. To find such a person, get in touch with local autism support groups and ask for advice. Check out online databases like AutismLink. Ask your family doctor for suggestions, too. Some states offer a service called "mobile therapy." This program brings therapists into your home to work with you and your whole family.

Is It Really Possible to Raise an Autistic Child and Still Live a Happy Life?:

Absolutely. Many people go through a difficult time when their child is first diagnosed with autism. But after a year or two, most do learn to cope, enjoy their child's achievements and their own lives, and have fun.
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