The Overstuffed Mind of Parents of Kids with Autism

When my mind gets overloaded and feels as if it will explode, I often imagine taking it off my shoulders and shaking it out the way I empty my overfilled backpack when trying to find my keys that have sunk to the bottom.

Ah, if only it were that easy.

Parents of kids with autism have minds full of stuff – the stuff of their crazy busy lives – that include so much more than the average human being. To mention just a very few of the things that simultaneously occupy the brain of said parent: therapy appointments, IEP meetings, prescription refills, data on behavior-to-hopefully-be-changed, field trips, social-skills-improving play-dates, grocery lists with the five things a persnickety kid will eat and mama/papa-needs-a-break camp applications.

And the list goes on and on.

Over the years, in my quest to help parents find ways to cope, to de-stress, to get up each and every Ground-Hog day with a clear head and renewed energy for caring for the kids we devotedly love, I have employed elements of many treatment modalities. For parents new to a diagnosis, grief work and psychoeducation on autism is often helpful as they adjust to this life-changing news. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can bring to awareness unproductive patterns of thinking and behavior that keep us stuck in unhealthy levels of worry or anger. Social learning theory can provide the scaffolding for building the parental self-efficacy needed to feel confident and competent to parent our complex kids. And while all of these have their place and value, there is a fundamental issue that butts up against the possible benefits of these interventions.

The never-ending-ness of autism.

I’ve read articles that liken parenting a child with autism to PTSD. While I understand the comparison, it misses the fact that there is no post. Each and every day, parents awaken (often in the wee hours of the morning) with adrenaline and cortisol pulsing, body and brain ready for the repeated primal hungry-lion-chasing-you scenarios that play out. Parent brains are on high alert, primed for action.

The other difficulty with the above-mentioned therapy options is the feedback from parents that it involves too much work, too much mental energy. We know the fuel tank is perpetually low so we need to find other ways to help parents.

That’s where mindfulness and mindful self-compassion come in.

In 1981, as a recent college graduate relocating to Boulder, Colorado, I was eager to fit into the bohemian lifestyle that this Rocky Mountain college town offered. So I ate my sprouts and loved John Denver and hiked and camped and learned to meditate. For twenty minutes every morning and evening, I’d sit quietly and repeat my for-my-ears-only mantra that I paid $150 to receive. It was money well spent though, as I found meditating relaxing and if nothing else, it was fun to hear our roommate, who was a TM pro, levitate as he meditated for hours on end in the basement of my brother’s house.

Little did I know how I’d come back to meditation at a time when I needed it so much more than back when my mind was comparatively empty without a mortgage and kids and autism.

This time though, meditation was in the bigger picture of mindfulness and mindful self-compassion. What I love about this practice is that rather than try and change thoughts and feelings, the point is to accept them, allow them, but not hyper-focus on them. Like traffic on the street out our window, we can learn to let them go by – there’s no need to run out into the busy street.

I’ve been incorporating mindfulness and mindful self-compassion in my work with parents both individually and in groups and so far, the results (both qualitative and quantitative) are encouraging.

We here at the autism blog will be introducing you to mindfulness with a monthly blog dedicated to helping you to cope, to de-stress, to get back up each day ready for whatever life throws your way.

Willing to try something different? We hope so. It’s easy. It’s effective.

And you are so worth it!

Stay tuned for Mindful Monday on the second Monday of each month.