By Brandiann Cornell
Defining a work-life balance when raising a child with autism comes down to figuring out what that might look like for individual parents.
Parenting a child with autism presents so many more obstacles than parenting a typical child. When life feels like it revolves around putting out metaphorical fires, it’s hard to keep everything in check without feeling like something is getting lost amidst all the noise.
This is where creating a work-life balance – or at least some semblance of one– is crucial to maintaining sanity while managing the child’s needs as best as the parent can. But with a little help, it is possible, and it makes a world of difference.
Does a Work-Life Balance Even Exist?
For many parents, forgoing the office life in favor of staying home with their children is impossible. The struggle of needing to spend half the day at work only to come home to a never-ending chore list is as daunting as it is tiresome. When raising a child with special needs, that stress further compounds when systems for managing it haven’t been established, or when established procedures go unchecked.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to creating a work-life balance for parents of children with autism. Every child’s needs are unique, a fact that is apparent when raising a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The important thing to realize is that the parent’s life is far different than that of a parent raising a child without ASD. Their journey toward creating balance is going to look different as well.
Parents of ASD children need to learn what works best for them within their lifestyle and fiercely advocate for it with their work and their time at home. It is possible to achieve a work-life balance when raising a child with autism, but it takes a lot of trial and error, along with some delicate fine-tuning and perseverance.
Creating a Support System
The typical support system for parents of children with autism has a three-pronged method of execution. Support will come in the form of family, friends, and paid help. If people are willing to help, it is essential to let them.
When a parent of an autistic child reaches out to family members for help, it doesn't have to be direct assistance with the child. Often, it will include having someone come over after the children are in bed so that the parent can go buy groceries or go grab some exercise. Simple things like someone coming over to make a meal, or helping with mundane errands, like grabbing your dry-cleaning while they are out and about go a long way in making life easier. These small gestures make an incredible impact that never goes unappreciated.
Too often, a stigma exists surrounding children with autism. The best thing that a friend of a parent with an autistic child can do is bring their non-ASD child over to socialize. Normalizing autism by teaching acceptance is a lesson that children will carry with them for the rest of their lives. These may not be typical playdates, but by keeping an open mind, they can be a fantastic opportunity for growth and understanding.
Paid help in the form of Personal Care Assistants (PCAs) or respite dollars can be a game-changer for parents of autistic children. If a child is delayed in being able to bathe, dress, or go to the bathroom by themselves, a PCA can be hired to help out at home or the daycare. This extra help takes some of the pressure off the parent, enabling them to tackle other areas of their life that need attention.
Similarly, respite dollars can be used to alleviate some of the stress that an ASD parent is undergoing. For example, you can hire someone qualified in caring for autistic children. This allows the parents to get some rest while knowing their child has the care that they need.
Discussing Your Options with Your Employer
For parents of children with ASD who don’t have the option to stay home all day, it may be necessary to discuss expectations with their employer.
Managing work with an ASD child at home can be a balancing act, but the parent needs to advocate for what they need. A later drop-off time at school might mean coming into work later but compensating for that lost time by working from home or staying late. Parents may be surprised by what they can accomplish by keeping an open dialogue with their employers.
The first step to negotiating what they need is to enter the conversation with a plan. Going to your employer and offering flexible solutions will garner better results than stating that you are struggling without offering a plan of action.
If there is no flexibility available within the position, it may be time to start looking for a new job. Work stress is often brought home, creating a tense environment there as well. If a possible solution doesn’t exist, you won’t be the best employee. On top of this, you won’t be the best parent that you can be, either.
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Tips and Tricks
There are plenty of small shifts that a parent of an autistic child can make to optimize their life and alleviate some of the hassles.
Meal planning is an excellent way to save money and cut out mealtime stress. By taking some time to plan out meals for the following week, a trip to the store goes from being a shopping frenzy to a well-calculated plan of action. Many local grocery stores offer the option of grocery pick-up at a moderate cost. This is a time saver as well as a stress reducer, as you can keep the kids out of the store or even have a helpful family member pick up your groceries for you.
Having meals planned for the week also reduces the last-minute stress of deciding what to put on the table on any given night. It only takes one afternoon to cook meals for the entire week. For the extra ambitious, batch cooking meals to keep in the freezer can be a time saver for weeks where meal planning isn’t an option.
For some parents, automating their home as much as possible is the key to maintaining their productivity and sanity. Loading the dishwasher and washing machine before they leave for work in the morning so that everything is clean when they get home will alleviate much of their evening hustle. Try to do a once-over of the house on a daily basis. A half an hour of cleaning before relaxing for the night will keep the chores from piling up and creating unwarranted overwhelming situations.
For most parents raising an autistic child, a complete work-life balance won’t exist. The key is to recognize and accept your version of this balance through support and careful coordination. Don’t be distracted by unrealistic social media standards that invariably has all of us comparing our lives to those of strangers. Your balanced life won’t look like anyone else’s, and that is perfectly alright. You need to create the balance that allows you to be the best parent you can be through all stages of your child’s development.
“I wouldn’t change you for the world, but I would change the world for you”