Living every day and night with someone with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be extremely stressful. We know this, but we often don’t know how to deal with that stress successfully and in a practical manner.
Below are some suggestions from many people who have had to deal with stressors similar to yours. These are not the recommendations of specialists but of ordinary people fighting the same battles that you are fighting to get through each day as best they can for themselves and their ASD loved ones.
The Secret to De-Stressing: Make and Take One Hour for Yourself EVERY Day
Block off at least one hour in your daily plan EVERY day. You must carve out a chunk of time for yourself not spent caring for others or dealing with other people’s problems. At first this will take some advanced planning and will feel like a great inconvenience to organize. For example, you may need to find a babysitter or modify other scheduled activities, but your hour will soon become a very rewarding part of your daily routine. If your hour is regularly used for you and you only, it will soon begin to feel as though you have saved your sanity. You will begin to have more patience to deal with the upsets and daily crises of life.
OK, where do you find this hour? One parent wrote that she sets priorities: “I ask myself: what’s really important in this situation – today – this week? It helps to clarify my thoughts.” So advanced planning can help you squeeze out your hour per day.
Ask for Help – Ask for help if you need it to make time for yourself. Widen the network of people whom you ask. Most of the people you know well will certainly understand why you’d need a break in your day. You’ll be surprised at the number of people who will be glad to help.
Lower Your Standards!! – This could be housekeeping standards, but it could also be any tasks that would take less of your time if done adequately rather than as perfectly as you’d like. We all need to face the fact that ASD makes for messy lives. Don’t waste time trying for perfection. We’ve got more crucial issues to deal with.
Ways to Use Your De-Stress Hour
Now that you have your precious hour, what will you do with it? Do whatever relaxes you and reinvigorates you the most. Do something that excites you. Have some fun. Try something new or try these suggestions:
Get Physical! – Many, many people have discovered that getting more active physically is the best de-stressor. Strange as it seems, even if you feel you are tired most of the time, you are likely to feel less tired, both mentally and physically, after some serious exercise. If you aren’t sure what to do, take a class at a local gym, YMCA or community center. Push yourself at least a little. One father told me, “When I’m angry, I go out and walk as fast as I can and as far as I can. I really push myself and I come home feeling much better and the anger is gone.”
As an alternative, yoga has become a very popular way to both relax and stretch your muscles. Again, yoga classes are available at community centers, adult education programs and YMCAs.
But physical activity doesn’t have to be in a class or a gym. One mother of an ASD adult swears by the therapeutic value of gardening. To her, gardening is far more than the outdoor physical work of planting, weeding and watering. She says planning her garden, purchasing plants, and then planting them are all very relaxing and take her mind off other problems. And, after the gardening is done, she gets continued satisfaction from eating her own produce and herbs and admiring the beautiful flowers that her “work” has created.
The point here is not just about exercise, but about finding an activity that takes your mind off your stress-related problems and enables you to focus on something that is personally rewarding.
Meditate! Visualize! – Your mind may need a breather as much as your body. If it seems impossible to take your mind off the troubles in your life, you may want to try meditation or visualization – mental stress reducers. There are many inexpensive audio CDs, DVDs and iPod downloads to guide you in meditation and progressive relaxation techniques. Remember, of course, that just buying the audio program won’t fix anything. These techniques take a little practice. That is what your hour is for. So find yourself a quiet, comfortable place to stretch out by yourself and listen.
Re-Evaluate the Company You Keep
Socialize with positive, enthusiastic people. Avoid complainers, blamers and whiners. Don’t let yourself be worn down by the negativity of others.
“No” Can Be a Good Thing
Learn to say no to the countless demands that others try to make on your time. Be gracious but firm. Then change the subject quickly, so you don’t leave time to be talked into doing something you don’t have time for. If this makes you feel somewhat guilty, remind yourself that you have a greater responsibility to be strong and energized to deal in the best possible way with your ASD situation.
Turn Down the Volume of the Outside World
Turn off the news for a while. It is nearly always negative. You will be surprised at how much more peaceful you will feel, and you may find that you are better able to focus. If there is a lot of loud television or radio in your environment, try to turn that down as well. You may feel more peaceful and the ASD person in your life may appreciate a break from the noise as well.
Treat Your Body Better
To achieve your maximum effectiveness and stress reduction, take a realistic look at what you eat and drink. If you consume a lot of caffeine, alcoholic beverages or sugars, consider gradually reducing these items in your diet. Although foods and drinks with these ingredients may feel comforting or energy-boosting for the moment, they may be hurting your overall well-being, focus, and energy level over the long run. So, cutting back in these areas may help you be more effective in all aspects of your life as well as help you be healthier.
Live and Let Live
Life with a loved one on the spectrum can be frustrating. You may not like the way they dress or tackle projects. Rather than letting them do things for themselves, you may either criticize their appearance or decisions or do their tasks yourself to make sure they are done properly. Take a step back and ask yourself if that is the best approach. Perhaps you need to loosen the reins, be a bit less critical, laugh more and try to appreciate your loved one for the person that he or she is, rather than the person they’re not. Don’t fall into the nagging and disappointment rut. Make a list of your loved one’s unique attributes and remember to appreciate those strong points, celebrate the positives, and live and let live.
Look for ASD support groups in your area. These groups are great places to find suggestions of practical ways to handle some of our most stressful problems; emotional, educational, financial, medical and many more. In the right support group, you will find people who truly understand what you are going through. Often members of these groups will be able to help you come up with solutions to problems you didn’t think could be solved, or they can just listen and provide a shoulder to lean on. It can be a great comfort to know that you are not alone. If the first group you try is not the right one for you, visit other groups until you find one that feels like home.
There are certainly many more ways to de-stress than we have discussed above. What helps you to calm down? What do you recommend to other ASD families and caregivers? What do you do to prevent stresses from wearing you down? Email email@example.com to share your ideas to help other ASD families.
Sharon L. Mosenkis is a Parent and a Steering Committee Member of the ASPEN® Adult Issues North in New Jersey. Karen Sperling Greene is a Family Member and Partner in Sperlingreene PR and Marketing in New York City.