12 Jun Stress of Parenting an Autistic Child Can Lead to Addiction
Caring for a child with special needs is never easy. Caring for the needs of a child with autism can be especially tough for parents and other constant caregivers. In fact, the intense stress of caring for an autistic child can lead parents to substance abuse—and the need for addiction treatment.
Caregiver Stress Research
Research suggests a link between caring for autistic children and caregiver stress. For example, mothers of children with autism showed significantly higher levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone, than mothers of children without special needs, according to a study from the University of Wisconsin Madison. In another study, mothers caring for autistic young or adult children reported more fatigue, stressful events, and disagreements than those with non-autistic children.
Coping With Caregiving Through Substance Abuse
It’s clear that stress is part of life when caring for a child with autism. Emotionally, you might feel guilty, anxious, overwhelmed or angry. The weight of providing constant care can manifest itself physically as well. It’s not uncommon for caregivers to feel exhausted, live with increased blood pressure, or engage in anxious habits like nail-biting or teeth-grinding. You might also find yourself “needing” a couple of glasses of wine before bed, or perhaps you’ve started taking more prescription pills than your doctor prescribed.
The problem is that drug and alcohol abuse destroys physical health, triggering anything from an increased risk of cancer to the risk of fatal overdose. An addiction also causes cognitive impairment, which means you’ll have a hard time making reasonable decisions, such as whether you’re sober enough to drive.
Without addiction treatment, your ability to care for your autistic child is seriously affected as well. For example, if you’re impaired, you’re less likely to be able to communicate effectively with your child—something that’s already challenging in the best of circumstances. An addicted caregiver is also less likely to attend to a child’s safety needs. The rest of the family is affected too. Partners and abled children are forced to pick up the responsibilities you’re unable to fulfill, whether it’s driving the autistic child to therapy or making dinner for the family.
Treatment Helps You, Your Child and Your Family
Substance abuse is a mental health condition that gets progressively worse. It is treatable, but you cannot do it alone. Addiction professionals at a qualified recovery facility will help you achieve and maintain sobriety.
Psychotherapy is the foundation of substance abuse treatment. During therapy sessions, you’ll learn to identify the situations, thoughts, or actions that can trigger your addictive behavior. The therapist will also help you pinpoint coping strategies to deal with negative thoughts and emotions in a healthy and productive way.
In some cases, the addiction treatment team may recommend medication as part of the recovery plan. These medications may be used to suppress withdrawal symptoms or to reestablish normal brain function. For example, drugs like methadone or naltrexone are sometimes recommended for a person battling opiate addiction. Medications like naltrexone, which blocks brain receptors linked to alcohol cravings, are also sometimes used to treat alcohol addiction. Remember, medications are only one component of addiction recovery. Successful treatment plans use prescription drugs to supplement other therapies.
Treatment may be inpatient or outpatient. As a caregiver, the idea of finding childcare for your autistic son or daughter during your recovery may seem daunting. Reach out to family members who may be able to help out—they may be more willing than you think to lend a hand so you can get healthy. Another alternative is to talk with the professionals at the recovery center; they may be able to refer you to local organizations that can safely care for an autistic child. Please don’t let the challenge of childcare prevent you from getting the substance addiction help you deserve.
Since addiction is a mental health condition that affects the entire family, your counselor may also recommend family or marriage therapy. These sessions will help loved ones cope with the addiction as well as build stronger, healthier family relationships.
Additional Steps for Coping with Caregiving
Lifestyle changes will create a less stressful environment that makes it easier to continue recovery after addiction treatment. Few studies have examined effective coping strategies specifically for those who care for autistic children, but one small research project found that effective coping strategies include scheduling “me” time and sharing the load with others. Here are specific tips for relieving stress:
- Take advantage of school time: If your autistic child attends school, it’s tempting to fill the time with all of your other responsibilities. However, it’s important to invest in “me” time while your child is at school. Schedule lunch with friends, settle into a park bench with a good book, or take a long bath.
- Develop supportive relationships: Caring for an autistic child can be lonely—but you don’t have to bear the weight alone. If it’s a challenge to connect with family members or friends who don’t understand your struggles, seek out an autism support group through online directories or local disability offices. Your child’s medical team may also be able to direct you to local support resources.
- Find a skilled babysitter: Spending time doing an activity you enjoy is an important way to combat the stress that leads to substance abuse. Work with one or more babysitters qualified to care for an autistic child. Educate the babysitter so he or she is familiar with your child’s routines, and, whenever possible, have the babysitter provide care in your home so your son or daughter can stay in a familiar environment.
- Take care of yourself. Caregiving can be overwhelming enough; it can be much more so if you’re not feeling healthy. Exercise regularly to reduce stress hormone levels and increase the body’s natural better-mood chemicals. Eat well so the body is nourished and energized. It’s also critical to stay on top of your own health care needs; don’t neglect appointments to see your primary care physician or dentist.
It may feel like you’re alone; but you are not. Addiction treatment from experienced professionals will help you find your way to sobriety so you can care for yourself, care for your child, and live a life free from substance abuse.
Find relief in recovery. Life gets better with addiction treatment.
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