Getting Unstuck When You’re Parenting a Child With Autism

Daily life as the parent of a child with autism is challenging. A licensed behavior analyst from ChildFirst Behavior Therapy shares her problem-solving techniques for getting unstuck.

Day-to-day life can be a challenging place for parents. With children and school and pets and work — then add in a child with exceptionalities — and it’s easy to recognize that daily life involves a lot of juggling. Sometimes, we manage it all, but other times, not so much. Instead of being productive, we spin our wheels. That’s the time we really need help getting unstuck.

Getting stuck when we’d like to move forward is something that happens to everyone, says Board Certified Behavior Analyst Ashley Musial, M.Ed., owner of ChildFirst Behavior Therapy, an Arlington Heights ABA therapy provider for kids with autism. But with a tweak to our perspective and strong problem-solving skills, we can even preempt getting stuck.

“This is something I have been putting into words recently, and I’m also seeing it in practice,” says Musial. She’s the mom of six sons, one of whom has ASD, and she has a can-do attitude that helps empower the families she supports at ChildFirst Behavior Therapy. “The important thing about problem solving and where we as people get stuck is when we make a lot of statements, but we don’t ask questions. We do better when we ask questions and challenge what we think we know, especially about what we need to do.”

Musial offers a simple example of something we have all tried to do: tackle a list of five things we believe we must get done on a particular day — when we know we only have the time and resources to complete four items.

“We start to have negative thoughts about getting work done, and how we’re never able to meet deadlines and if we can’t get the work done, people will get mad. It just cycles. It can be crippling and stop you from engaging in adaptive behavior that helps you solve the problem,” Musial explains.

Pivoting from negative statements to questions can help you get unstuck. You might ask if you really need to get five things done today, or if any of those deadlines are firm. Maybe you’ll ask if any of the mountains are moveable, eventually asking if they even are mountains.

Breaking away from the assumption that there is nobody to help you allows you to start asking who else can get these things done.

“Maybe I can delegate some of this. Maybe I can push back,” Musial offers. “One very powerful behavior when you’re feeling overwhelmed and stuck is to turn a statement into a question.”

A day in the life

Parents of a child with autism can feel an exceptional type of pressure to get everything done and the potential for getting stuck and cycling through negative statements is real, Musial says. “This could involve any behavior or any circumstance,” she says.

Let’s say you came home from work and (of course) you are tired. Your child comes off the bus crying, but you can’t get to the bottom of what’s going on. You do know that you need to bathe your child because it’s been at least three days since the last bath. Maybe he has paint swipes up his arm. But taking a bath is a process and your child doesn’t love water.

“You begin to paint a picture around your own fatigue and your child is upset and aversive to having his hair washed, so you make a mental plan to set your child up with a favorite show after his bath,” Musial says. “Meanwhile, you know that if you don’t get the chicken in the oven, it won’t cook and your child will be crabby if he doesn’t eat. Now there is a gridlock involving a bath, chicken and a favorite show.”

Spiraling negative self-talk includes what you have told yourself are truths: you can’t not bathe your child, you can’t not get the chicken in the oven, you can’t eat or serve undercooked chicken and you can’t be a bad parent. “These are a lot of can’t statements,” Musial says.

Flip the script

Instead, you can start to ask questions. Does your child have to eat at a specific time? Does the chicken need to cook for 40 minutes? Does your child need to have a bath so that his teachers won’t think you’re a bad mom? Could you transition to a bath after the favorite show, then have dinner? Would a wipe-down with damp paper towels in front of the favorite TV show work just as well?

“There is a solution for most things, but sometimes you just have to be creative,” Musial says.

And, while Musial says she’d never otherwise suggest that a parent “take to the internet,” she does see the value in Googling instead of reinventing the wheel.

“Some of the basics, like managing bath time around dinner routines, how to keep a child busy on an airplane and many other challenges have already been solved by other people, so when you are most in need and you’re building your problem-solving repertoire, checking to see what others do is one solution you could try.”

Building problem-solving skills to get unstuck takes time and energy and a new way of thinking, but once you start turning statements into questions, you’ll open yourself to new and creative ways to meet everyday challenges.

Learn more about ChildFirst Behavior Therapy at childfirstbehaviortherapy.com.

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