My Autistic Son Demands All My Time…

Dear Mamas,

We have two children and the youngest one is autistic. My daughter is 7 and my son is 4. Tim takes a lot of our time and attention and Hannah is often called on to take care of herself so we can attend to Tim. She is a super responsible kid and loves her little brother a lot. She has always been really patient with him, much more than I would have been at her age. The fact is, I really need her help a lot. But sometimes I feel guilty asking her to help with him. My husband thinks she is doing fine and that she understands the situation.

My question is, am I being overly concerned about her? Should she be expected to pick up the slack and help out as much as we need? Or are we asking too much of her?

Feeling Guilty in Tulsa

Dear Guilty,

It’s so great that you are thinking about the impact that your son’s condition might be having on your daughter. She is lucky to have a mom who’s so sensitive because even though she is a “super responsible kid,” she also needs lots of attention from you. And given the circumstances, that might be a challenge – after all there are only so many hours in the day. So it’s really important that you let her know how much you appreciate the sacrifices she must occasionally make on behalf of her brother.

But you don’t need to feel guilty about asking her to pitch in. At seven, there are many things that she can do for herself and she — like all kids — should be encouraged to do as much as she is capable of. Dressing herself, keeping her room picked up, setting the table, brushing her teeth, and distributing clean laundry are just a few examples of things that she can reasonably be expected to help with. These kinds of responsibilities help her to grow, feel confident about herself, and become independent. Plus, they help her to see that she is a valuable, contributing member of her family and that makes her feel proud.

And it’s great that she likes to help out with her brother. She can, most definitely, be expected to do so, sometimes. As long as the expectations are realistic and not beyond what a child her age can or should do, it’s okay. But she should never be made to feel that she is carrying the weight of responsibility for his welfare. So, for example, she should not be expected to babysit him for hours at a time or spend an inordinate amount of time playing with him, or be asked to give up having friends or playdates of her own.

She has to feel confident that her own needs, as well as those of her brother’s, will be taken care of. In order to avoid hurt feelings and resentments down the road it’s important that you give her the attention she needs now in order to thrive and feel secure.

So sit down with your husband and figure out how you can each carve out some special time with your daughter each week that will be safeguarded no matter what! It doesn’t have to be big … just something she can really count on. Make sure that the focus is on her and her life. So, for example, if she is a big reader, you could take her to the library one evening each week and spend half an hour looking for books followed by a stop at the Frozen Yogurt Shop on the way home.

Or, maybe one of you could set aside a half hour each week to bike ride or ice skate together. Or, the two of you could have a regular “Bake Night”  and try out recipes that the whole family can enjoy later. The only caveat is that these experiences are clearly understood to be “special time” that no one — including Tim — can crash. And don’t forget to make them laptop/cell-phone-free.

Knowing that you appreciate her help and that she can look forward to regular time with each of you will help her get through the times when she must be patient and put her immediate needs aside.

Good luck with a tough situation and remember that you’re only human. You’ve got a lot on your plate, so be sure to take care of yourself, too. We’ll be thinking of you!

 

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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