Psychologist Allison Keating answers your queries about life and relationships.
Question: My wife has completely checked out since our son, now five, was diagnosed with autism. We were lucky to get an early assessment, but it seems to have thrown her into a depression and she is distant with him and with me for months now.
She had been struggling anyway as he was a very difficult baby and we are older parents — she was in her mid 40s and I was in my early 50s when he was born – we had fertility treatment to have him and I think this is compounding the issue for her, and I am worried about her and also how this is going to stall his progress.
She says she fantasises about just walking out and never coming back, and that also scares me as I won’t be able to cope alone. What kind of help can I get for her?
Allison replies: There are so many painful parts to this. I am sorry for all that is and has been going on for you all. The pain and grief that are present are also simultaneously present for the future you had hoped, expected, and planned for.
This is extra challenging when the journey to becoming pregnant was hard fought, and most likely filled with its own losses and disappointments.
Grief isn’t limited to when someone dies. Grief can show up in the darkness of despair accompanied by the powerful and dangerous duo of helplessness and hopelessness, sliding easily into a reactive depression.
Reactive depression can occur as a result of the struggle to adjust to a difficult life event. This makes so much sense as all grief is unasked for, unwelcome, unexpected, and out of your control. And the grief for the expectations and hopes that you had for your child, which you are no doubt keenly aware of with developmental milestones and comparisons.
There are unfounded, unhelpful, and misguided concepts surrounding the perceived amount of time it takes to ‘adjust’, as if time itself somehow changes unchangeable facts. People who haven’t walked in your parenting shoes can’t fathom what it is like for you. Often the most isolating part for parents is the lack of understanding and comments — if even well-meaning — from others who may try to bright-side your experiences because of their own discomfort.
The realities of long-term developmental issues within a family are complex. So many aspects are hidden and misunderstood and require ongoing patience, support and compassion for each new phase and stage in your child and your lives.
Start by having an honest and supportive conversation with your wife. These types of conversations can feel like they could implode at any second, and often it’s because both parents are beyond stressed and exhausted. That weary feeling combined with the oncoming future is more than a little daunting.
The relationship complexities between you as a couple need space to hold each other’s personal grief. How are you getting on? I hear your fear and loneliness as a father, and perhaps within the marriage. The impact of depression on a partner has heavy implications.
Have you spoken with anyone, or do you get any help? Find forums that are helpful and that work for you. Negative chat forums can add to bleakness that isn’t either supportive or helpful. Getting stuck in rumination or ruminative thoughts can hold you prisoner, and is linked with depression.
To support your wife, support yourself. What help do you have? Do you have a good occupational therapist (OT)? Building a relationship there can be both supportive and practically helpful, giving exercises to help with homelife that specifically look at motor skills, and emotional and behavioural regulation.
I recently came across Irish brother- and sister-in-law Kevin and Aine, of Everyday OT Ireland (@everyday_ot_ireland), looking at neurodivergent parenting support with really good day-to-day exercises.
The All Things Sensory podcast (@allthingssensorypodcast) also came highly recommended by a parent of children with additional need of @supercalmsensoryproducts, and provides a space called ‘Parents’ Perspective’ where you leave a video about the rewards and challenges of raising children with additional needs. The idea was to counteract the negativity that can engulf parents in negative forums. Listening to other parents who understand can be very supportive.
Autism charity AsIAm (asiam.ie) offers supports programmes for families which may also be helpful. I imagine you know a lot of these supports but it is so overwhelming for parents to try and source resources they can trust.
Have you done any couples counselling? When the time is right, this could be beneficial as there may be anger present since the fertility treatment that needs to be processed, and to see how you can all be supported now.
Before couples counselling is explored, be honest about your worries and concerns for your wife. Say what you see, but with great compassion specifically around your concerns that she may be depressed. Just because you suggest talking with a professional doesn’t mean she will jump at your suggestion. Has your wife seen her GP lately? Apart from yourself, who is in her support circle, or has she withdrawn?
How are you both managing with sleep and getting care breaks during the day or week? A schedule around this is as important as the occupational therapy you do with your child. Ensuring rest periods, exercise — even just a 10-minute walk on your own — online food deliveries and whatever makes and takes some of the stress out of life.
These basic self-care routines are so important, and so easy to go when dealing with a child with additional needs. Finding space for your needs as parents, and for your wife where she can have time just for her is something you can look at immediately. I would encourage micro-moments of rest — asking her what she finds helpful may open up this conversation to assess specific needs that need to be met.
As I mentioned, you need to take care of yourself too, so you can support her where she is at the moment. Build up your care resources by asking for help.
Acceptance sounds a lot softer than it is in practice. If your wife has checked out, the pain may feel too much right now. My advice is to check in with her and find ways to facilitate getting her as much support as possible.
Kristin Neff has a great nine-minute Self-compassion for Caregivers meditation on YouTube. Can I also add Gravity Autism Support (gravityautismsupport.ie), which runs weekly activity groups for kids from five to 17, and support meetings for parents.
Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column, email email@example.com