What’s one rarely-discussed practice that can help autism parents every day?
Practice saying, “No.” A lot.
Then do it. A lot.
You are not being mean or unkind. You are prioritizing. You are aligning the energy and time you expend with what is most important to you. You are intentionally deciding what to spend that time and energy on rather than just giving it to the first people who ask.
You do not get bonus points or merit badges for wearing yourself out. All you get in return for all that effort is exhaustion. You don’t do anyone any good if you are a barely-functioning zombie.
Usually our first reaction when someone asks us for something is to say, “Yes.” I’m giving you permission to do something you may think is selfish, even though it’s not. I’m giving you permission to say “no” as often as you want, to whomever you want, if saying “yes” does not align with your priorities of taking care of your family and yourself.
If you say “yes” to most of the people who ask you for something, you often end up saying “no” to your children, your spouse, your health, sleep, time to eat a decent meal, work, everything on your to-do list that really does need to get done, and activities that would make your life better.
Practice saying “no” in front of a mirror if you have to. If you’d feel better giving people a reason, write one or two out and memorize it. Tell people you are overextended or overwhelmed and need to focus on things at home right now. That’s likely true anyway. I even give you permission to make up a reason if you need to.
Is it possible the person you are saying “no” to will feel hurt? Perhaps. There’s also a good chance they will understand. Regardless, your priorities are important, and protecting them is essential to the well-being of your children, your family, and yourself.
What if you’ve already committed yourself to activities that are taking you away from your priorities? It’s OK to quit them. Explain that you are overwhelmed, and you need to simplify your life in order to do what you need to for your family. Transition yourself out of whatever it is or just quit.
Feelings may be hurt, but life will move on. You are not doing this to be mean; you are doing this for your own sanity and the well-being of your family. Whatever it is will survive without you. If you didn’t really want to be doing those things in the first place, you’ll feel better soon after you quit. Trust me.
If after you’ve addressed the priorities in your life you have some time and energy left over, awesome. Say “yes” to something that helps others and aligns with your personal priorities. But start with the essentials of your life and move outward, not the other way around.
You may think I’m giving you permission to be a selfish jerk. While I wouldn’t use those words, call it what you want. What I’m suggesting you do is make choices based on what is most important to you. To do that, you have to say “no” a lot. And most of us, including me, seem to feel we need permission to do that.
So here’s your permission. The challenges and responsibilities you have on your plate right now as autism parents are enormous. You need to be able to focus on them as completely as you can. Either people will understand (yay!) or they won’t (you don’t need those people in your life anyway).
Will this solve all your problems? Not likely. But you’ll never get to a much better place in your life until you reach one where you have the time and energy you need to focus on what matters to you most. It’s a start, and a critical one. It’s ultimately how you start being able to say “yes” to everything that matters to you.