Sunday, November 1, 2015


“Mrs. Byrne, what’s your son going as for trick or treating?” asked one of my seventh grade students on Friday. Now that the first quarter of the school year is over, my students know that they can ask me questions about my personal life, and I know that they are curious about my life outside of school.

“He’s not going trick or treating. He’s an adult,” I reminded them. Some of them looked at me curiously; others remembered that I had told them that he’s twenty-three years old.

“But I thought the reason you only teach in the mornings is because you have to go home and take care of your son,” another commented.

“Yes,” I began cautiously, knowing that one of the students in the class also has autism. “Remember, I told you that he has autism and needs my help because he can’t do some things by himself.” Some of them showed signs that they recalled what I had already told them about Alex and nodded knowingly; some of them looked at me sympathetically.

Trying to come up with a simple way to summarize what our life is like, I told them, “He’s kind of like a giant five-year-old.” That seemed to satisfy their need to know, and the bell rang to end the class. In many ways as their teacher I play the same role that I play as the mother of an adult son with autism––caregiver. I loan them pencils they have forgotten to bring, give them bandages for wounds real and imagined, listen to them tell their worries and accomplishments, and most of all, make them feel safe and nurtured.

While I think being able to take care of others is one of my strengths, I also need to remember to take care of myself. This week, I read an article online entitled “10 Signs of Caregiver Stress” and felt fortunate that now I rarely suffer from any of the symptoms: depression, withdrawal, anxiety, anger, loss of concentration, changes in eating habits, insomnia, exhaustion, drinking or smoking, and health problems. [To read this article, please click here.] Because Alex has improved over time, he requires less care from us, and we have learned to cope with the everyday stresses of taking care of a child, and now an adult, with autism.

This article also provides helpful tips in coping with the stressors associated with caregiving, offering fourteen strategies for controlling stress. This list of suggestions includes seeking help in the form of respite and health care resources, asking for financial help, joining support groups, and finding caregiver resources. In addition, the list recommends that caregivers take care of their own health through exercising and regular checkups. The majority of the list, however, focuses upon dealing with mental stressors and offers excellent suggestions for coping. To keep from becoming overwhelmed by the demands of caretaking, the need to prioritize, make lists, and establish daily routines––all of which I find extremely valuable––is emphasized. Other recommendations include keeping in touch with friends and family while also making time for oneself and recognizing the need to say no to some requests. Moreover, taking time off from a job may be required to give the time needed to balance caregiving and taking care of oneself.

Probably the most useful suggestions from this article included those regarding how to shape thinking as ways to cope with stress. Strategies recommended include the following: setting realistic goals, identifying what can and cannot be changed, forgiving oneself for imperfections, and thinking positively while keeping a sense of humor. I know that all of these strategies have helped me cope with the stresses autism has brought into our family life. I also know that when I forget these suggestions, I feel overwhelmed, trying to do the impossible, being too hard on myself, and taking things entirely too seriously. Additionally, I would add prayer as the most vital coping technique, for praying always puts life into perspective for me and eases my worries, bringing a sense of calm and peace.

Truly, caring for a loved one with a disability demands mental and physical energy and can overwhelm the caregiver. However, I sometimes find lately that Alex and I switch roles, as he is also learning to care for me. Yesterday, I found myself frustrated by a seemingly ordinary circumstance, and Alex was able to put the incident into perspective for me, instead of my doing that for him. We were supposed to have a new clothes dryer delivered between 12:30 and 2:30 in the afternoon, but as the day wore on, clearly the delivery was not going to happen within the time frame we had been given. Although we were hoping for an early delivery so that we could go to a basketball game as a family, that was not to be. Even though I’m sure that Alex was disappointed about not going to the game, he never complained or got upset about the change in plans.

When the delivery truck finally arrived around 4:30, Alex was a little nervous about how the late installation of the dryer would impact his precious dinnertime, telling me he was “very hungry.” I handed him a couple of gluten-free/dairy-free cookies to tide him over until we could have dinner, and he was satisfied. Because we had to be home to give out candy to trick-or-treaters starting at 5:30, our original plans to go out to dinner at a restaurant were also cancelled. Again, Alex was disappointed, but he remained pleasant and never complained about the changes caused by the delayed dryer delivery.

After being annoyed most of the afternoon waiting for the delivery guys, their arrival further irritated me because they did not properly install the dryer and told us we would have to wait for someone from the service department to fix the problems. I think they were in a big hurry because they were running late, so they didn’t bother to put the leveling feet on the bottom of the dryer, which means the door won’t stay open for loading clothes, and they didn’t hook up the vent in the right place, so we can’t shut the door to the laundry closet because the dryer is sticking out too far. As my mother would say, “It was a real disappointment.”

On the positive side, the dryer does work, so I tried drying a load of clothes yesterday evening. Alex with his exceptional hearing noticed the quiet hum of the dryer and asked me what that sound was. I explained that it was our new dryer, and he smiled, commenting that it had a deeper sound than the old one. Of course, the reason why we got rid of the old one was that it sounded like it was grinding gravel, so this truly was a big improvement. As I watched Alex amused by the gentle sound of the new dryer whose delivery had caused so much annoyance that day, I realized that he had the attitude I needed. Instead of being upset that the delivery had not gone as I’d planned, I was fortunate to be able to have a nice new clothes dryer, one that had a pleasing sound. All of the other details will be resolved, and there was nothing more we could do to fix them until next week. Despite all the irritations and changes in plans, Alex had remained calm and seen the bright side of the situation, and he showed me that I needed to do the same. I’d like to think that he learned that from me. Maybe I was wrong in the way I explained Alex to my students; maybe it’s not just that I take care of him but that he also takes care of me. More importantly, Alex and I know that God takes care of us as the ultimate caregiver, helping us cope with all issues big and small.

“Give your burdens to the Lord, and He will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall.” Psalm 55:22

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