Autism Families and Building Resilience

Building resilience is an important source of support for families with children who have disabilities. I define resilience as the ability to resist stress. It can be described as that part of your personality or character that allows you to stand up after life has thrown you some very hard punches. According to Karst and Van Hecke, sometimes the pervasive nature and severity of the autistic disorder may translate into parenting stress, financial strain and high rates of divorce (Karst and Van Hecke, 2012). The stress on the parents is ultimately transferred to the child thus diminishing the quality of family life and negatively affecting attempts at intervention. Building resilience is thus of great importance for the families of autism spectrum disorders.

There is no magic bullet for building resilience. Think of it in analogy to loosing weight. If there were one successful and convenient way for loosing weight we would all have heard about it. A 2007 study reported that families with an autistic child often built resilience by not one but a variety of ways including making a positive meaning of disability, mobilization of resources, and becoming united and closer as a family; finding greater appreciation of life in general, and other people in specific; and gaining spiritual strength (Bayat, 20017; see also previous blog: http://bit.ly/1npDkZi). Resilient families therefore have multiple avenues for building support. More importantly, many of these characteristics can be cultivated and strengthened.

In this blog we will talk about 5 domains that can be practiced as a way of building resilience:

  • Promote Self-Awareness: Become aware of your our strengths and weaknesses. The more we know about ourselves the more we may uncover beliefs/assumptions that get us in problem. Examine your thoughts, feelings and behaviors (see our previous blogs on cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT). How can you promote self-awareness? Take time to reflect/introspect. This will allow you to self-monitor and pay attention to the way you react to situations. When you face an emotionally charged situation maybe it is time to reflect. As you get to know other people (e.g. with autism) reflect on your won situation as well as theirs. Get feedback from somebody who can point the things to you, someone who will allow you to discover your blind spots. (Note: Always bite your tongue when you ask for feedback. Never lash back if you disagree with their criticism).
  • Relationships: People that are resilient have good relationships and work hard at keeping them. You have to manage relationships and have their needs met. You need good relationship with others but work equally hard on establishing boundaries. You know what you won’t put up with, and you can choose to remove from it. Sometimes toxic people may be the cause of stress and you need to know when to let things go or put distance from them.
  • Self-care and self-management: “No Monkeys” is a term derived from business management. It makes reference to passing the problem along to somebody else or “getting the monkey off your back”. A major stress builder is when you fail to delegate and keep doing all of the jobs yourself. If somebody has a problem help them work it out themselves. Share rather than take over the problem. Set time away from work and establish ritualized time outs. Go for coffee, that is, establish little routines that make you step out of your current situation for a few minutes.
  • Mindfulness: Focus (or be aware) of the present experience without judgment/commentary. Are you engaged in the ongoing commentaries in the back of your head? We have many sensory channels coming in at once and we have to select which one to pay attention. Multitasking is the opposite of mindfulness and can sometimes lead to stress. You many have two hands and would like to have many but you have only one brain. When performing many chores the bottleneck is not in the hands but in your mental ability to handle them.  You have to practice mindfulness in order to obtain its benefits. You may know about gyms but it takes practice to build muscle. As an example of mindfulness you may choose to pay attention to your breathing and as your mind wonders bring it back, pay attention to the task. You may choose to be aware of anything, not only breathing, e.g., the pressure of the cushion against you, the seat you are sitting in, the sound of the air conditioner. Just remember that if you are eating you should be eating, if you are walking you should be walking, not doing multiple things at once. This is a way of avoiding whipping yourself into a frenzy.
  • Know the difference between Purpose (with a capital P) vs. purpose (with small caps). Do you feel like you are achieving something or is it being appreciated? This type of activity reflects Purpose. Try always to reflect on things that make you feel good, e.g., it was good that you took your son to his softball game. This reflection means that you are a good parent and that the same traits will be passed on to the next generation. Building resilience in this respect is about having passion, productivity, priorities, and perspective. If you spend 20% of the time doing things that you really like, it will be protective of stress. Consciously we are not wired to be happy, our ancestor who were satisfied with the status quo found the attitude adaptive when our main goal in life was just to survive.  Nowadays that we have a surplus, we need to do more with our brains. Invest in continuous education and improvement.

When practicing building your resilience acknowledge that there is a gap between knowing what to do and implementing practiced efforts. Schedule your implementations and review your progress. If possible, do the exercises with a partner who may also serve for accountability purposes.

References

Bayat M. Evidence of resilience in families of children with autism. J Intellect Disabil Res 51(pt 9):702-14, 2007.

Karst JS, Van Hecke AV. Parent and family impact of autism spectrum disorders: a review and proposed model for intervention evaluation. Clun Child Fam Psychol Rev 15(3):247-77, 2012.

Zwack J, Schweitzer J. If every fifth physician is affected by burnout, what about the other four? Resilience strategies of experienced physicians. Acad Med 88(3):382-9, 2013.

See previous blogs:

Cognitive Therapy and autism: http://bit.ly/2b4cdRo

Finding meaning in autism: http://bit.ly/2bhOdIn

Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People: http://bit.ly/1npDkZi

 

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