The Alcohol Solution for Mothers of Autistic Children

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The Alcohol Solution for Mothers of Autistic Children

By Jackie Olson 09/29/15

Most parents are left to figure out their autistic child’s specific needs, treatments and therapies on their own. And it can be overwhelming.

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When a mother’s child is diagnosed with autism their reactions vary. Some believe autism is a gift from God, while others blame the environment, or genetics, or a combination of both. Science has yet to determine a cause, so no matter what your opinion is, the results are the same. There is no cure. There are medications to treat different symptoms, but as of yet, most parents are left to figure out their child’s specific needs, treatments and therapies on their own. And it can be overwhelming.  

In 2014, the CDC estimated autism prevalence to be 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys) in the United States (noting that these numbers are from data dated 2010). While these numbers are astounding on their own, add that 1 in 6 children had a developmental disability as noted between 2006 and 2008. Those numbers are expected to be higher when they finally catch up to present-day figures. That makes for millions of parents receiving an autism diagnosis for their child and/or children.   

I now have the luxury of hindsight since I’m parenting a teenager on the autism spectrum. I’m familiar with the amazing traits many autistic individuals possess, but I didn’t know anything about autism when my son was diagnosed at three-years old. I was told he would be institutionalized, never be potty trained and never speak. Fear, grief and depression moved in and took over my brain.

There was very little information on the Internet about autism in 2001, so I’d scan books at night, desperately trying to find any answers on how to help my child. The experts said early intervention was crucial, so I was suddenly on this scavenger hunt, searching for clues, begging for help, waiting on lab tests, filling out government agency forms, doctors’ paperwork, therapists’ evaluations—it was a storm of conflicting information swirling around, making my head spin.

“What if I don’t find the help he needs?” I lived in constant panic that I wasn’t doing enough. It’s never enough. And so I reached for a drink. 

My freezer was packed with buckets of margaritas to help me calm my frantic mind. When I’d be physically and emotionally exhausted, I’d scoop the slushy tequila mix and drink until I’d finally pass out. Granting myself the gift of complete oblivion, if only for a few hours. 

Parenting a child with autism is isolating.

Even with social media, you’re often physically alone with your child. You spend most of your child’s youth in doctors’ offices and therapists' parking lots.  You’re not invited to the soccer mom’s kids birthday parties, but you wouldn’t go anyways because who wants the painful reminder that your kid will meltdown while the other kids enjoy cake. 

You find yourself staying home more and more because it’s hard to go to the grocery store, you order shoes and clothes and toilet paper online, and restaurants are out of the question with their bright lights and crowds. Even family functions are miserable. You’re either hiding in a room alone soothing your child or they’re climbing the walls so all your aunts and uncles can tell you that your child with autism just needs discipline. Yes, there are still some frightening fools that think spanking “fixes” a child with autism. 

You don’t have time for friends because you’re building a life raft out of hope and despair, and the last thing you want to hear about is their difficult decision-making process of picking out new drapes. In fact, everything feels petty and superficial because it only magnifies the invisible clock ticking above your child’s head. You would love to be helping pick out drapes, but you just can’t these days.   

Instead, your mind drifts to your child being a flight risk and the locks and alarms you’ve put inside your house to keep them safe. You wonder about the debilitating seizures, as many with autism also have epilepsy, or may self-harm, or have aggression. You are consumed with helping your baby, because they will always be your baby, and it hurts like hell to see them suffer. 

When you have a child with autism, no matter how old they are, you can’t just use your adorable high-school aged neighbor to babysit. Most kids with autism need specialized supervision, whether it be with a trained therapist, or if they have medical needs, a nurse. You can’t use daycare at the gym and you can’t use the after-school care unless you pay for an aide to stay with your child. The result is you pretty much have a child with autism Velcroed to you at all times. 

It never occurred to me that I could be an alcoholic as I blew through bottles of wine. Everyone in my autism mom group on Facebook was drinking, too. My fellow autism moms would post “It’s Time for Wine” memes and I rationalized that what I was doing was socially acceptable. We were all raising our glasses around the nation simultaneously.

Autism moms deserve a drink.  

That is what I thought I deserved, some alcohol to help me relax. But what moms deserve, and this goes for any mom who is caring for a child with special needs, is support. Both physical and emotional support. Time to yourself. You deserve a break, a spa day, a parade, to win the lottery. You are the most loving, generous, bad ass warriors, and you deserve so much more than a drink. 

After my wine-filled nights, I’d drink pools of coffee. I was running on liquid energy and I finally realized I wasn’t just lethargic all the time, I was hungover. I took a hard look at my life; my mind was foggy, my decisions horrendous, my moods intolerable. I wanted to be healthy and present for my child with autism. And so I quit drinking. Cold turkey. By reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, I learned that I’m an all-or-nothing type of person. I go big or go home, so casual drinking wasn’t an option for me. And I entered a therapy program. 

Solutions stem from support.

Drinking among autism moms is twofold; support is needed for parenting a child with special needs, and, secondly, support is needed for the alcoholic. I’ve been sober for over four years. To maintain my sobriety, I attend controlled, consistent women’s group therapy once a week, meaning it’s the same group of women led by the same therapist each week in order to create trust, privacy, and growth. 

Dr. Lauren Tobing-Puente, a licensed psychologist whose private practice provides services to children with ASD and their parents in Manhattan and Queens, stresses that it is so important for parents of children with ASD and other special needs to take care of themselves, which includes many things. Formal support, such as individual therapy, can give them the time and space they need to address their stresses, fears and concerns. Being part of a positive community of other parents with children with special needs can be helpful. Taking the time for date nights with partners, regularly exercising, doing meditation, yoga or other healthy activities, and pampering oneself (e.g., getting a massage or a pedicure) are highly important.

She notes, “It is all too easy to become consumed with the caregiving of a child with ASD and only make time for themselves after the child goes to sleep (if they, in fact, do sleep), with alcohol as an easily available coping strategy.”

My story is common; it’s just going on behind closed doors. 

The best way to help a parent of a child with autism is through support. Many parent support groups offer childcare specifically for those with special needs for a fee, and some allow parents to bring their child with them to the group. There are government programs that provide respite, a caregiver to help with your child so that parents can take a break. Finding parents in your similar shoes can be a lifeline enabling you to meet up and share care-taking responsibilities. Please find a few resources to get you started below.   

Autism Speaks maintains an online guide to find local parent support groups and MyAutismTeam, the official social network for Autism Speaks, with more than 40,000 parents connecting, sharing information, and finding like-minded individuals in their area. AA has programs specifically for individuals with autism and other special needs. Two more resources for parents of children with disabilities are the Department of Developmental Services (per state) and the Department of Education. Once a parent starts finding support systems and programs that are available, they can start helping themselves along with their children.  

Jackie Linder Olson is co-author of the Sensory Parenting series, which combines occupational therapy, sensory integration and parenting. She blogs at PeaceAutismandLove about raising a teenager with autism, sensory processing disorder. The blog also has a page on Facebook

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