Self-care activities that are worth the effort:
Be Mindful of What You Eat
Many parents of children on the autism spectrum pay very close attention to the food and supplements that go into their child’s body. So many parents, however, forget about their own nutrition as they strive to provide the perfect diet for their affected child. Even when there seems to be no time left to prepare yourself a healthy meal, it is important to remember that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer globally, accounting for 1 in 4 deaths in the United States every year. Many of these deaths can be prevented with lifestyle changes, starting with what we eat.
General guidelines for healthy eating include lowering daily intake of sugar and cholesterol, avoiding excess alcohol consumption, choosing organic, GMO-free foods whenever possible, and ensuring the intake of vitamins and minerals that are essential to immune function of the body. If you can’t find the time to get all necessary micronutrients through diet, a supplement like a multivitamin may be beneficial.
Additionally, if routine dictates that most of your day is spent indoors, oral vitamin D supplementation could help off-set any deficiency that may occur from lack of sun exposure. Bloodwork can show some nutritional deficits (such as anemia from not getting enough dietary iron), so it’s a good idea to consult a doctor and ask about lab work before starting any new vitamins or supplements.
Get Some Exercise
Getting enough exercise is a daunting task even for adults not responsible for round-the-clock care of another person. Gym memberships may not be appropriate or financially viable options for many autism parents, but just getting in a walk several times a week could be enough. A 2017 study showed that walking compared with standing offered benefits not only to the muscles of the body, but to the brain as well. Other research revealed that exercise doesn’t even need to be strenuous.
Walking as slowly as 2 minutes an hour for just 30 minutes a day reduced the participants’ risk of death by 33% in a three-year period. If you can’t find time to get out of the house, and your child is capable, making daily walks part of his or her routine can be beneficial to both of you. If you are unable to do it outside, even walks around the house are preferable to sitting on the couch.
See a Doctor
Finding time to fit in preventative healthcare, like a colonoscopy or mammogram, can seem nearly impossible, especially for anyone who spends a lot of time taking their child to medical exams, therapies, and treatments. Whether or not you opt to spend your free time engaging in this type of routine health screening, it is important to pay attention to your own body and address anything out of the ordinary. Research has shown that regular mammograms had no benefit over physical examination of the breast in women over the age of 50. Doing a self-breast exam is essential for any woman who chooses to forego mammography. Monitoring your skin for changes or noting any differences in bowel habits is also essential if you can’t get to the doctor as often as you’d like.
Many parents find it easier to seek alternative health care providers such as chiropractors or integrative physician services when finances allow. If nothing else, having your own bloodwork tested at least once a year can help identify numerous health problems, including failing kidney or liver function, risk of heart disease, chronic inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies.
Take a Nap
Abundant research supports autism parents’ claims that their children sleep less than typically-developing ones. Children on the spectrum wake more often, go to sleep later, and get up earlier than neurotypical children, as well as have a lower quality of sleep. A 2017 study showed that lack of sleep was one of the top five unmet needs reported by mothers of autistic children. Sleep disturbances in ASD children have been correlated with increased maternal stress.
Just about all parents suffer some lack of sleep during the first year of their child’s life. For autism parents, however, the continuation of that broken-up sleep, shown through research to continue past 30 months of age into adolescence, combined with any fears a parent has regarding their child’s behaviors, can lead to a significant amount of lost sleep for the parent caregiver. This added strain can cause marital relationships to suffer as well. Purchasing an inexpensive baby-monitor may increase your sense of security, as well as installing locks to ensure that a wandering child does not get out of the house when you have your eyes closed.
Asking for coverage so that you can be off the clock, even one night a week, can give you a chance to string together several hours of uninterrupted shuteye, which offers health advantages and stress reduction that can provide long-lasting benefits. Caregivers should be aware of how important sleep is, and, when possible, put everything else on hold to sleep when their child sleeps, even if it’s just a quick power nap in the middle of the day.
It’s About TIME!
Caring for an autistic child is a marathon, not a sprint. It is vital for a caregiving parent to conserve energy and resources for the long-haul. The difference between feeling overwhelmed or being empowered can often be as simple as having a plan and learning a few self-care coping strategies to help prevent burnout, which was recently named a medical condition by the World Health Organization (WHO).
While the WHO targeted ‘employment’ as their focus of this research, there should be no doubt that caring for an autistic child is a full-time job capable of causing the same, if not more rapid burnout for anyone devoting their life to the care of a special-needs child.
Time is precious, and it may not seem feasible to add additional responsibilities into an already packed schedule, even if it comes down to extending your own life. Start small. A good first step might be to join a support group, either locally or online, to learn about new resources and strategies, and to develop an additional support network outside of the family.
Even if putting your own needs first or getting some help from another person increases anxiety (often due to negative past experiences when doing so), that stress is often temporary. Try reframing the way you think about ‘time spent on yourself’ as ‘time added to your life’. Many parents of children with disabilities often verbalize their greatest concern to be “what will happen to my child when I’m gone”.
Taking care of yourself will ensure that you have more time to fulfill your most important goal: protecting your child’s comfort, health, and happiness, and ensuring the highest quality of life for the dependent child whom you love so much.