For parents of neurodiverse children, daily life can prove incredibly stressful. As today is World Autism Awareness Day, we spoke to dad Stuart about life parenting an autistic child, and how the free EarlyBird course helped his family.
What were some of the difficulties and challenges that you faced as a dad?
Raising three young children alongside my wife Aimee is an adventure for sure. We have another daughter, Mollie, who is 5 and has Down Syndrome. We expected many challenges with Mollie, due to the diagnosis.
While the majority of our attention and effort was going into raising Mollie, we were also really aware that Darcie was struggling with her behaviour. That’s not to say she was overly naughty. She just struggled to focus, and listen to instruction. It was almost like she wasn’t in the room with us. She was hyper focused on what she was into at that time.
Anything for Darcie that has a routine or a structure is an opportunity for an outburst or a meltdown. It can be anything from having a hot meal at lunchtime rather than sandwiches, or us not having the same brand of food that she’s used too.
Trying to meet or maintain cultural and family expectations gave us more issues. The old saying, “well in my childhood, I wouldn’t have been allowed to have behaved in that way”, only resulted in more stress and anxiety.
Has facing those challenges in parenting affected you personally?
Parenting is hard, even without the additional needs element. I began to feel overwhelmed with everything. I felt I spent every moment that I was awake either shouting or being frustrated with my children’s behaviour. It got to the point where I self-referred for mental health help. The situation was damaging my marriage and our family life.
What advice would you give to other fathers parenting an autistic child?
Put yourself out there and reach out to other dads and families, don’t do this on your own.
Very often activities for our children are attended just by mums. If you are in the position where you can get to a group, get there.
Can you describe the circumstances that led to you looking for support?
As a family we attend a local church. We were talking to one of our friends there, who happens to be a child psychologist, and her husband is also a GP. We mentioned our concerns to them, and they agreed and helped us write a self referral, with the help of the school to start the pathway to diagnosis.
What advice in the EarlyBird course worked for your family?
The course identified areas in our parenting where we started to question our approaches and understanding of how Darcie sees the world, and what we could do to help her process each day.
Did you enjoy the course and find it helpful?
The course was really helpful and empowered us to try different strategies and tools. It helped us gain an understanding of what could potentially be a trigger for an event and how to respond when a meltdown came.
It also really helped to know that you are not alone. There are other parents that have experienced the same and had experience and advice.
How have things shifted in your approach to parenting since taking the course?
We have put systems in place that bring more organisation and less chance. Often the most stressful times in our family seem to be around disorganisation or uncertainty, so we became more aware of that. It’s helped to have a plan for now and next, timetables etc, planners in the kitchen etc. It sounds almost over controlling and over bearing, and it wont work for everyone, but it works for us.
How are things now?
Every day is different. Yesterday if you had asked me if Darcie was on the autistic spectrum, I would have said no, she didn’t whinge, she ate everything that was given to her, she ran into school, she did her homework, no drama at all.
Tomorrow could be very different. But with the tips and experience of having spent the last ten weeks or so on the EarlyBird course and accessing the great support, we are better equipped than before. It doesn’t stop me getting frustrated with how slowly a little person can put there pyjamas on or eat a meal, but it has enabled me to take a step back and try and understand her world more.
If you would like to enrol on the free EarlyBird course, click here and choose ‘Parent Support, self referral’, and then ‘EarlyBird Plus’ from the options list.