As COVID-19 has recently become a global pandemic, people around the world have faced fear and uncertainty as well as a loss of freedom because sheltering in place has become necessary to stop the spread of the virus. Although the concept of staying home is daunting for many, I have had to shelter in place before and can assure those who are experiencing this for the first time that one can be content while homebound. As the Apostle Paul states in Philippians 4:11, “…for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
When I was pregnant with Alex, I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder, chronic immune thrombocytopenia purpura, or ITP, in which my immune system mistakenly destroyed healthy blood platelets responsible for clotting, putting me at risk for hemorrhaging. Normal platelet count is between 150,000-450,000; my typical platelet count at the time was about 100,000. Shortly before Alex was born, I caught a bad cold, causing my immune system to overreact, and my platelets dropped dangerously low to 2,000. My obstetrician, who never minced words, warned me, “You could hemorrhage into the placenta and kill both you and the baby!” After being hospitalized for a few days and treatment with intravenous gamma globulin, my platelets returned to a safer range. However, I was to be essentially confined to home for the next few months, taking care of a newborn baby and not risking getting sick and having my platelets drop. Fortunately, by avoiding other people’s germs, I never had another ITP crisis, and thankful to be alive, I was fine with being safely ensconced at home.
Later I would realize that situation properly prepared me to be the mother of a child with autism. At various times, we have had to shelter in place with Alex because his unpredictable behaviors made going out in public too difficult for us, or his sensory issues and anxiety made leaving the house too difficult for him. Rather than complaining about the restrictions autism has imposed on our family life, we have accepted what is. Thankfully, the three of us enjoy being at home, reading books, listening to music, watching television, surfing the internet, and spending time together in our peaceful existence. Sheltering in place has frequently become a way of life for us.
Yesterday, an autism dad shared an interesting online article written by mental health counselor Rose Reif and titled, “4 reasons why special needs parents are better equipped than everyone else to handle Coronavirus stress.” [To read this article, please click here.] Although one would think that parents with special needs children would find the extra stress caused by the pandemic daunting, she explains how life has prepared these parents to cope even in extreme circumstances. Specifically, she notes four qualities that make special needs parents stronger––traits that others can learn and use to get through this current crisis.
First, she states that special needs parents are adept at “tolerating ambiguity,” that is, accepting uncertainty, such as not knowing how long this pandemic will last or what will happen. As she notes, “…for special needs parents, this is not the first time that life hasn’t looked how they expected it to look.” Moreover, she explains that special needs parents have learned to accept and adapt to change quickly out of necessity, knowing that there are “no guarantees” in life. When I am tempted to fear the future, I remember the wisdom of my son, who often prophetically says, “Wait and see.”
Another trait that makes special needs parents resilient according to this article is that they are “focusing on what they can control (and only on what they can control).” While we can’t control what others say or do, we can control what we say and do as well as determining our attitudes. Life with a special needs child can feel out of control, but we take control by our response, especially in a crisis setting. Alex’s behavioral therapist has taught him a variety of mantras to recite when he feels anxious so that he can feel a sense of control. His favorite is “Everything will be all right.” I do the same thing with Bible verses, most often Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” More importantly, we know that God is in control, which gives us even greater comfort than thinking we are in control.
A third quality noted in the article that special needs parents possess is “knowing when to accept ‘good enough.’” Through experience, special needs parents have learned that they cannot do everything they should/need/want to do, so they have learned to accept their limits and prioritize where to focus their energies. As Ms. Reif states, “These special needs parents recognize that good enough may actually be perfect right now.” As a perfectionist, this was a hard lesson for me to learn, but placing unreasonable expectations upon myself brings anxiety and discontent. Good enough is good enough, at least that's what I keep telling myself.
Finally, the article explains that special needs parents have an “understanding that social distancing is not the same as emotional distancing.” Specifically, parents of special needs children “know intimately the pain of feeling isolated” because they have often had to miss family gatherings or social events, due to their child’s unique needs. However, Ms. Reif observes that this isolation has made them empathetic to the feelings of those who are currently struggling with social distancing. She notes of special needs parents: “They are reaching out, maintaining connection, and validating how hard it really is to feel alone in your struggle and fear.” Thankfully, modern technology allows us to connect via phone, email, and social media so that we can feel less isolated from people we care about.
As we look ahead in these days of uncertainty, when life feels out of control and we struggle to accept that we are doing enough, we need to connect with others so that we don’t feel alone. Although special needs parents have learned these lessons the hard way, perhaps others can benefit from our experience. As the Apostle Paul reminds us to follow God’s example in II Corinthians 1:4, “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” Here’s a comforting thought: You’ve got this because God’s got this. Or, as Alex would say, “Wait and see. Everything will be all right.”
“For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.” Psalm 27:5