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Dealing with the Emotional, Physical, and Financial Burdens of Autism

Of all the questions that parents have during the first few months – or years – after their child has been diagnosed with autism, the one that they may wonder about the most but ask the least is probably, "Will I ever sleep soundly again?" The stress of having a child with a disability is unfathomable: you don't know what the future holds, you don't know whether you're making the right choices, you don't know if you can continue to handle the craziness of your days, and you often don't know how you're going to pay for all the special services your child now needs. Add to that the exhaustion of those sleepless nights, and you've got people who are under an overwhelming amount of stress.

Interestingly, mothers and fathers of kids with special needs tend to have different areas of stress – moms feel more stress related to caring for their children and worrying about their progress, while dads often feel more stress related to finances and the burden of paying for special services. They also often deal with their stress differently – women find some release in talking about it, but men tend to find relief in action. For example, say a clerk in a store asks a family to leave because their child is having a tantrum and it's disturbing the other customers. The mom would probably want to spend an evening talking to a good friend or relative about how embarrassed she was – just talking about it serves as a release for her. But the dad is more likely to feel like he has to take action – he may well insist on making a phone call to chew out the store manager. Because of this basic difference in approach, spouses can lose patience with each other, so you can add marital stress to an already long list of problem areas.

No matter what kinds of support families find, it's difficult to alleviate all parental stress when the child has a disability. And I don't mean the stress that any parent has. I mean clinical levels of stress that can actually lead to ill health – parents of children with autism report more health problems than other parents their age. And without help and action for their child, many can feel less energetic, and some can even lose interest in sex.

Below, I'll describe the areas of stress most likely to affect parents of children with autism and make some suggestions for coping with them. Remember: my advice is no replacement for good psychological support from a professional, a good friend, a family member, or a parent group, so please seek this out if you're feeling overwhelmed and frightened.

The Stress of Wondering About the Future
Of all the fears that keep a parent awake at night, concern about her child's future – how well her child will ultimately be able to function in the real world – is probably the biggest one.

Many children with autism do not perform well on standardized tests, and many professionals, especially in the schools, base much of their analysis on how the child performs on those tests, so the picture a parent gets of his child's cognitive abilities is often bleaker than it needs to be.

A helpful thing to focus on when thinking about cognitive levels is the brain's plasticity. Many children who have suffered from a stroke, gunshot wound, or other severe brain trauma are able to fully recover by developing neural pathways around the damaged areas. Our goal is to help children with autism do the exact same thing. We haven't yet met a child with autism who couldn't learn with good sound interventions.

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From Overcoming Autism by Lynn Kern Koegel, Ph.D. and Claire LaZebnik. Copyright 2004. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.

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