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My autistic son is driving me crazy. How do I cope? Add to ...

The question: I have a 17-year-old son who suffers from autism. It can be difficult at times. When he eats, he can unexpectedly start acting up and make awful sounds. He will randomly pick up and turn things over. You can give him instructions as a parent and he decides not to move an inch. I love him, but I find myself struggling not to be angry at him for his worst actions. How can I find ways to cope with behaviour that I understand he may not be able to control?

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The answer: Raising a child with a pervasive developmental disorder can be one of the most personally taxing and challenging life situations a parent can find themselves in.

First and foremost, you need to be gentle with yourself – you are only human, and feeling upset or even angry toward your son is a natural reaction that most parents with a special-needs child will experience.

Most parents, however, feel reluctant to verbalize their negative feelings due to fear that they will be reprimanded or judged by others; suppressing these feelings will do nothing but amplify them over time. What’s important is that you get the support you need as you deal with the daily challenges of parenting your son, while of course remaining mindful of not inappropriately displaying your frustration to your son.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has the hallmark feature of impaired social interaction and is characterized by impairments in communication and repetitive, stereotyped behavioural patterns.

Although there is no “cure” in the traditional sense for autism, symptoms often improve with age and treatment, with Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA, a skill-oriented behavioural intervention that is highly structured and intensive) being the most strongly supported by research. This would be an avenue I would suggest exploring if you have not already.

It’s important to keep in mind that repetitive or perseverative behaviours are not unique to individuals with autism; particularly when under stressors, many people will engage in some element of repetitive behaviours (e.g., nail biting, pacing, obsessive cleaning). Given your son’s age, I would guess you have spent countless hours over the years trying to understand and manage as best as you can your son’s behaviours.

Over time, however, and given the number of years your family has been dealing with his autism, it’s natural to lose objectivity in understanding patterns that may exist, and there may be value in revisiting this.

Specifically, pay attention to the days when the repetitive/perseverative behaviours are less frequent: What elements that occurred earlier in the day – and particularly in the hours leading up to mealtime – could account for this? Try to replicate the elements that seem to be associated with a reduction in his repetitive behaviours, and reduce or eliminate those that seem to play a role in exacerbating his symptoms.

Most importantly, actively work to manage other stressors in your life that you do have control over. Pay attention to the usual factors that may reduce our threshold for stress; get adequate amounts of sleep, regularly exercise, eat healthy and minimize alcohol use.

You can also join a support group in your community where you can get the emotional and logistical support that other parents with autistic children can offer.

And make sure you schedule some “non-parenting time.” Don’t be shy to ask for help from your partner or family members, or you can implement external caretaking support if you are financially in a position to do so. Take the time away from parenting to do things that you enjoy: Meet a friend, go for a run, watch a movie – anything that provides you with much-needed relief from your responsibilities, for a little while.

Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .

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