Autism and the Blended Family – Part 2
Autism and the Blended Family – Part 2
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Ron Deal, M.MFT. and Stephanie Holmes, M.A.
This blog originally ran as an article in Issue 48 of Autism Parent Magazine: Connecting and Communicating with Autism edition June 2016. Read Part 1 here
Bridge the Gaps in Your Marriage and Parenting
In our book The Smart Stepmom, Laura Petherbridge and I (Ron) outline how children respond differently to biological parents and stepparents in blended families. Even when there isn’t an AS/ASD child in the home, the contrast is striking. For example, when biological parents make a mistake their children are quick to offer them forgiveness; stepparents receive quick judgement and children are easily angered at them. Biological parents are granted “insider status”, get automatic love, approval, and trust, and are considered moral authorities. Stepchildren are deciding if and how much to love, approve of, trust, and listen to their stepparent—and in the beginning consider them “outsiders” who have to earn their way in. These relationship differences also impact how the adult views and responds to the child. For example, biological parents may inherently trust their child’s explanation for how the milk got spilled while the stepparent wonders if there’s more to the story.
There are even more differences when the biological parent has an AS/ASD child.
- If the AS/ASD child has had difficulties with other adult caregivers the biological parent may be fiercely protective of the child; the stepparent may feel this is too harsh and controlling.
- The biological parent has gained knowledge of AS/ASD through the years; in the beginning the stepparent is starting at ground zero and, therefore, at a disadvantage to know how to contribute to parenting.
- The biological parent knows what triggers the child and what causes meltdowns; the stepparent may view meltdowns as manipulative misbehavior.
- The biological parent budgets for therapy/treatment/resources; the stepparent may not anticipate those types of financial obligations.
- The biological parent knows where the child started and has watched his/her progress; the stepparent only sees where the child is now and cannot appreciate their accomplishments.
- In addition, biological siblings are used to the AS/ASD child and accommodating to their needs is embraced; stepsiblings are caught off guard and might feel violated by how much life is oriented around the AS/ASD child’s needs.
Here are some suggestions to help parents and stepparents bridge these gaps:
Discuss your feelings without placing blame or trying to apply simple solutions (which the AS/ASD parent knows will not work). In the first couple years we suggest the family adapt to the routines already in place for the AS/ASD child; changes can come eventually, but should come slowly and only after much discussion between the couple. Stepparents will likely be making many adjustments and sacrifices on behalf of the needs of the AS/ASD child, so biological parents should be compassionate with their frustrations. They should, also, strive to over communicate about family structure to help the stepparent and stepsiblings adapt well.
Date and dine. We also suggest couples make time to date one another—and not allow their couple time to be invaded by problem discussions related to the AS/ASD child. Reserve a business meeting for that! Date nights need to be about strengthening your “usness” so love and trust foster a safe place to nurture a newly formed family and its complications.
Find some time. Each person in the home needs a hobby. The special needs child takes a lot of energy; you need time alone for self-care so you can have the energy you need to take care of the child. Everyone needs a break! NT siblings, especially, need an autism-free zone where they can get a break and be the focus of attention from parents. Autism cannot be the only identity of the family.
Learn Patience. It will take time to learn about the needs of the child and to merge your family. Find outside support (e.g., a support group or local church ministry) and stay determined to the process.
Learn Organizational Skills. Structure and order is a must for the AS/ASD family. If that is not your forte as a parent, work at it!
Recognize the importance of spiritual strength. I (Stephanie) don’t know where I would be without my faith in God and prayer. Overcoming my “Why did you do this to me, God?” struggle took lots of prayer from myself and others, but now I can see the gift our family has.
Don’t neglect the child who is not special needs. Make a strong effort to engage all your children so they don’t feel neglected and become resentful of the special needs’ child.
Find joy in small victories. Not everything is a setback, not everything has to be worked on now. When there is an accomplishment, no matter how small, celebrate it. Joy is contagious. Joy inspires hope.
Work toward “prevention”. Study your child and try to prevent meltdowns instead of always doing meltdown recovery. This does not mean to give in at all costs, but when going to a new environment, for example, anticipate what might set the child off. What can you do to make him or her successful in the situation and not compromise the whole family night?
Learn to be flexible. Things change; plans change; life happens. You cannot predict every eruption that may happen with a spectrum child so learn to be flexible and adapt.
Finding Reward in the Journey. The average stepfamily journey consists of a few predictable steps: First, a couple falls in love and decides to marry. Second, just as when two rivers merge, the new stepfamily wrestles through a number of “white water” adjustments as they figure out “how to be family” with one another. And, third, the once fractured but now bonded family enjoys smooth rewarding waters brought about by their hard work and determination. In general, a typical stepfamily needs 5-7 years to begin experiencing rewards (some families take longer).
Likewise, AS/ASD stepfamilies will move through similar stages, but given the complexities and various layers of an AS/ASD child the intensity of the rapids can be even greater and the length of time required to smooth out the white-water torrents may increase. Yet, it can be done. We hope that AS/ASD stepfamilies will be encouraged; finding family harmony is possible, but it will require intentionality and determination.
Ron L. Deal, M.MFT., is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of FamilyLife Blended™, a popular conference speaker, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s, books, and curriculum for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (with David H. Olson). Ron is one of the most widely read authors on blended family living in the country. His one-minute radio feature FamilyLife Blended can be heard daily on stations nationwide and online. Learn more at FamilyLife.com/blended.
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister, a Licensed Christian Counselor, and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her eldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She then began to focus on helping families deal with the frustrations and challenges of having a special needs child and works with Aspie- NT couples across the country through Skype consultation. She speaks nationally about AS/ASD and families, Spectrum Teens, and Aspie- NT marriage. Her newly published book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Infertility and Autism Grew My Faith explores her personal journey and gives practical advice to families. With leading ASD researcher, Dr. Tony Attwood, Stephanie has published articles in Autism /Asperger’s Digest on issues Spectrum Teens face.