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    Posted May 10, 2014 by
    Guelph, Ontario
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Going public with mental illness

    Me, Myself, and I.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children in the United States has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with similar rates noted in Canada. What is often not mentioned with this statistic is the fact that many of these children's parents may experience a mental disorder of some sort themselves.

    When describing one's experiences with an ASD child, it can be tempting to portray him or her as an often unpredictable, rocky sea and yourself as a simple, completely "normal" vessle that is merely trying to keep everyone else afloat. Your child's behaviours can often seem so perplexing and disorienting it's easy to forget that he or she does not live in a vacuum and that there's a good chance you too may also struggle with your own differences or vulnerabilities.

    Case in point. In Canada and the USA, approximately 20-25% of women will experience depression (Major Depressive Disorder) in their lifetime, while approximately one in four adults will struggle with an Anxiety Disorder (these may include, for example, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and various Phobias). Further, many adults struggle with chronic illnesses or physical disabilities which impact their lives and the lives of their family members. Consequently, the odds are fairly good that your ASD son or daughter may at some point have a parent who does not fit the "norm" and who may be experiencing diagnosable differences themselves.

    Take me, for example. I experienced a significant, lengthy episode of depression as a teenager. In the years that followed, I went through milder periods of ups and downs, but considered any mood problems behind me. I was coping, and coping with aplomb! I earned my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, after all, and became the mother of four lovely children. How could a mentally ill person do all of that? I was Dr. Mom, dammit, and as Dr. Mom, nothing could ever be wrong with me again! My past was my past! Everything was great!

    Then came my son Max's diagnosis at age three and with it my awareness that I had no idea how to help my child with his intense meltdowns and distress. I was his parent, but I was doing a pretty awful job at parenting (or so I thought). My all-consuming feelings of helplessness and my past history of mood problems collided, and I fell into a second significant episode of depression, to be followed by what is known as an episode of "hypomania", which was in turn followed by my own diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder.

    When I first told people about my diagnosis, I tried to put a Hollywood spin on it. Hey, friends and family, I've got the same diagnosis as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jane Pauley, and Demi Lovato! Woo-hoo! Except, of course, the experience of a mood disorder is anything but glamorous for oneself or one's loved ones. It can lead you to feel isolated, to feel helpless, to feel worthless.

    The reason I'm sharing this about myself is because I know the statistics. I know that there may be parents like me who are reading this, mothers or fathers who are trying their best to learn about, better understand, and seek services for their ASD child, while at the same time trying to learn about, better understand, and seek services for themselves, too.

    Whether it's a mood difficulty, anxiety concern, or other form of mental illness, many of our personal differences can make the act of parenting even tougher. The diagnosis of ASD can seem so overwhelming at first to parents that it's easy to put all of your energy into gaining information, seeking intervention, doing, doing, doing. A sense of urgency can seem to exist that may lead a parent to forget about their own needs, their own struggles, their own vulnerabilities.

    As someone who has gotten a bit further down this road, I urge parents of newly diagnosed children to not do this, particularly if you have a diagnosis of some sort yourself.

    Autism is not a race your child is running, but a lifelong difference. Starting to understand what that means and to eventually accept and even embrace what that means may take time. Give it to yourself. Turn to others to help you get that time. Whatever you do, please don't let your own needs fall by the wayside.

    Yes, your child will likely benefit from different sorts of interventions in order to help them become the wonderful, best functioning Autistic adult they were meant to be. But there will be time.

    I can only speak for myself, but if I ignore my own needs for self-care (e.g., getting enough rest, eating well, taking my medication, making sure I don't do too much), I run the risk of becoming overly irritable, anxious, or overwhelmed, all mood changes that my sensitive ASD child absorbs like a sponge. In other words, if I put all of my energy on trying to be Super-Mom, I typically end up being Less-Than-Mom, an overwrought parent whom none of my children benefit from.

    It turns out that your ASD child is not the sea. You as the parent are the sea. If you're anything like me (and as I said, there's a good chance at least some of you might be), then unless you keep making time/getting support/seeking help for yourself, you run the risk of becoming unpredictable and rocky yourself, making it hard for your son or daughter to learn how to not only float their own vessle but to someday possibly even steer it.

    In my years working as a clinical psychologist, I learned of a well-used metaphor that bears repeating now: When on an airplane and oxygen masks are needed, passengers are told to put their own mask on before putting one onto their child.

    Your child will not run out of oxygen if you remember to meet your needs, too. You will have time. Please try and take it.

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