My husband finds it hard to accept our daughter has autism
He says she is just ‘quirky’. I am coping alone and we are fighting a lot over this
“Sometimes I think he judges me for the way I manage.” Photograph: iStock
Question: I have three children and the eldest girl, who is eight, has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. She has been very challenging to manage and some days I cope better than others.
The problem is that I feel I am coping alone.
My husband works long hours, so I am on my own a lot and we fight a lot over this. He is hands-on with the kids when he is home, though he does not see all the behaviour and stresses that I cope with daily. Sometimes, I think he thinks I am exaggerating or that he judges me for the way I manage.
I think he finds it hard to accept having a daughter with ASD. He won’t talk about it or tell his family even. When she was finally diagnosed last year, it was a relief to me, but he didn’t want it, saying she was just “quirky” and that there was nothing much wrong with her. He won’t come to professional meetings and the different parenting courses for our daughter, when I know he could take the time off work. This is another thing we fight about .
I feel I am coping alone.
Answer: Parenting three young children is stressful and demanding at the best of times. Parenting a child with a disability or additional needs significantly adds to this stress. You are right to acknowledge this and to seek support. Unfortunately, this stress can have a negative impact on your mental health as a parent and can put a strain on your relationship with your partner.
While couples often think that having a child together will bring them closer, in fact the parenting stress can bring out conflicts and drive them further apart. As a result it is very important to make special efforts to attend to and support your relationship once you have children. This is especially the case when parenting a child with additional needs.
Understanding your different parenting approaches
When couples have different parenting approaches to their child’s special needs, this can be a major source of stress, especially when it brings them into conflict. In your case it sounds like you and your husband are at different stages of understanding and accepting your daughter’s special needs. For you it is important to acknowledge and talk about your daughter’s special needs, whereas your husband is more private about this and does not want to talk about it. For you, your daughter’s diagnosis brought relief, probably because it provided an explanation for her problems and put you in touch with supports.
However, for your husband it sounds like it brought disappointment as he comes to terms with accepting his daughter’s special needs. Dealing with these challenges, many fathers pull back from day-to-day care of the child and go into a “provider panic”, working long hours. They can miss out on medical and professional appointments that would help them understand their child’s condition and also feel empowered to deal with it. This can increase the burden on mothers like yourself who are dealing with the day-to-day stresses. Finding a way that you and your husband can understand each other is the first step to making things better between you.
Attending to your relationship
With the busy demands of parenting a child with special needs, time for the couple relationship can easily get lost, yet it is the quality of this co-parenting relationship that is central to addressing the stress you are under. Think how you can bring back some of the enjoyable connecting times in your relationship. When during the day do you manage to have a good conversation with your husband? What things do you still do that you enjoy that you can do more of?
While arranging a weekly babysitter to go out is important, sometimes it is simple things in the home that can make a difference, such as watching a favourite TV programme together, cooking a couple’s meal one evening a week when the kids are in bed or making sure to tell each other news throughout the day. One couple I worked with had the ritual of standing out in the garden for a few minutes (out of earshot of the kids) when they came in from work to have a “debriefing” chat about the daily stresses they were under.
Helping your husband get involved
In situations like your own, I am frequently advising fathers to get involved as much as possible, to attend the professional appointments and services as well as in the day-to-day care of their child with special needs. Not only is this the best way for them to understand and help their child but it is also the best way to support their partner and to work together as a team. (If it helps, feel free to show your husband this answer as a means to encourage him to do this.) Given your husband is busy with work, it could be helpful to identify particular roles that he can take charge of.
For example, your husband might take on the the job of taking your daughter to a course of occupational therapy treatments, and take responsibility to ensure the exercises are done at home. Or he might commit to attending a parenting course or a series of parenting talks with you about managing your daughter’s special needs. Attending such a service together can help you to communicate better and agree about how to manage your daughter and have the added bonus of giving you time together.
Address your own stress
Finally, it is important that you take your own steps to address your stress levels. If you feel isolated in your coping, try to identify services that can support you. There are several parent-led organisations for children with autism who can suggest options and who can put you in touch with like-minded parents who can support you. In addition, the disability service your daughter attends may have a parent counsellor or social worker who can support you and identify service options.