Autism and Marriage for Parents

Autism: A New Perspective
Autism: A New Perspective
Autism and Marriage for Parents

My advice to RDI® parents is to make sure you and your consultant are asking, “How does everybody get on the same page and how do you come together as a family?” Not an autism family, but how do you come together as a family?

Because you are going to deal with autism but you know you’re going to deal with a lot of other things too and as parents, you need to make sure you’re on the same page with each other.

In this episode of RDIconnect’s podcast series ASD: A New Perspective, Dr. Rachelle Sheely talks about the effects of autism in the family on the marital relationship between parents.

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Full Transcript

Kat Lee: Welcome back to ASD: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child, and we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee, and in this week’s podcast, Dr. Sheely talks to us about autism, parents and marriage. Let’s listen in.

Kat Lee: I have to tell you, one of the reasons this subject of autism and marriage came up for me, two reasons. One is it’s so searched by parents, that whole topic of autism and marriage for themselves. And the other reason was, I was perusing some of our old podcast webinars, and by old, I mean probably 10 years that we have online. And I saw one from myself on autism and marriage, so of course, I had to give a listen [chuckle] all this time later to see what I said. And what struck me was, if you then go and look up the data and statistics on parents and parents with children who have vulnerabilities or say special needs may be something that people search or autism, it’s just very challenging to their relationship as partners for the parents. And in autism particularly… And you’ve always said so beautifully, autism is confusing to all of us, to you who’ve been in this field for so long. And I kept thinking, “Why is it so hard for parents? Why is it so hard for their relationship,” because I don’t know.

Dr. Sheely: I think it’s a hard thing to think about because if we’re not sensitive in the way we think about it, we’re not sensitive to what parents go through before they get the diagnosis. And I feel like… I don’t wanna be gender insensitive, but I think mothers feel a kind of rejection that the fathers don’t feel. And mothers are feeling… Mothers are feeling very incompetent because they’re doing what comes naturally to them and the child isn’t responding in an apprentice sort of way. The fathers tend to spend a little less time with the children, and when they do, there’s more of a rough and tumble. So they don’t get that same sense of something not being right because you throw a child in the air and the child laughs and you’re having a good time. So I think even before the diagnosis, there is something that sets in with parents that makes them feel incompetent. Then they get the diagnosis and although they never wanted to hear it, some parents feel relief, but a lot of other parents are now completely traumatized by what they’ve heard. “Okay, I was struggling before. Now, I know where this is going,” which they really don’t know where it’s going, but, “I know where it’s going, so I have to do everything right away to reverse this.”

Kat Lee: Do you think there can begin for some parents, that in their relationship, one is feeling that, “I’ve gotta do everything to turn this around,” and the other’s just not in sync with them on that? I wonder how often that happens.

Dr. Sheely: I think it happens all the time, and that asynchronous relationship is something that makes it more difficult for parents. They now have a trauma, they have a crisis, and so they often revert back to how they were raised as children because it’s familiar to them. And of course, nobody was ever raised the same unless you were twins, right? [chuckle] Maybe not even twins. And so the mother was raised a certain way and what she remembers about the way she was mentored as her parents is what she starts relying on. The father was mentored in a certain way by his parents, and now he is relying on that too. So you have two often completely different ways of raising the children colliding with each other, and it collides around this area of autism. I think in RDI, we recognize that, and it’s why we take the approach we do, which is really different from a cookie cutter as what everybody does.

Kat Lee: I just think about how… I think I’ve heard you call it the “kiss of death” in a relationship, but it can start being that, from one parent to the other, “You’re not doing it right,” it being whatever they’ve been told to do by a professional. And then the other parent starts to feel more incompetent because now you have this in the home. It’s not like going to work and being told, “You need to do this better,” or whatever. You’re having this from your life partner that, “You’re not doing it right. You’re hurting our child.” I think that really strikes at the heart of being a parent.

Dr. Sheely: It absolutely strikes at the heart. And I feel like it’s one reason why we have to be careful when we’re working with parents. A lot of the families are still intact. The parents are still trying to do this together. And so maybe one parent will say, “I can’t come to the meetings, but my wife or my husband can. So you tell them and they will tell me,” and I reject that out of hand right away because now we have one parent who’s telling the other… Just as you said, one parent telling the other parent what to do, and that’s a disaster waiting to happen. We cannot have one parent doing that. So I will say to a parent, “I understand your schedule and I understand the problems that you’re having, but what I wanna do is, I wanna meet with you once a month. If you can’t meet with me every week, I wanna meet with you once a month, and I want you to have your own objective. I want you to have your own relationship with your child.” And I’ve found that to be very helpful. I will tell parents, “Please don’t tell each other what to do.”

Kat Lee: That’s a… You’re… [laughter] The smile. And it’s so easy… It’s so easy, I know watching my wonderful families over the years, for one of the parents to be… I don’t know what the right term is, Dr. Sheely. The leader [laughter] or whatever doing more? 

Dr. Sheely: They think they’re coaching. And so one parent is playing with the child and the other parent says, “Remember, use declarative language.” What? If you wanna have that discussion at another time, okay, but don’t do it. One of my favorite videos is a dad who is emptying the trash with his son, and all of a sudden he turns to the mom and he says, “Mom, what should we do?” He’s obviously got the video camera recording. Silence. [laughter] And he turns back around and finished it up.

Kat Lee: I’m just being honest. I don’t know if I’d be silent. [laughter]

Dr. Sheely: It was a direct question, “What should I do?” And it’s like silence or something.

Kat Lee: Oh, my gosh. One of the things that I have seen is that rift you talk about, it starts to become a gap. I think of a fault line and a crack in the group and it just starts doing this. Have you seen that too, as one parent starts to be not connected, not engaged with what’s going on? 

Dr. Sheely: I absolutely have seen that. I like to refer to it as a wedge with glue. And so the parents are being pushed further and further apart. They’re not connecting and they’re not connecting at increasingly greater levels, but they would never leave a child who has a need. So that’s that glue holding together, which is the same thing that’s pushing them apart, and they really do not know what to do. Katherine, I think that’s the beauty of the guiding relationship. We actually get both parents on the same page. We feel both parents are important. We feel the siblings are important. We don’t want them tossed aside either. We want everybody in the family to be important, including the person who’s struggling with autism. And in re-establishing that guiding relationship, the family becomes very strong and the parents are on the same page, but if we don’t do that, the rift is terrible. And I can see it sometimes in the rolling of the eyes, the response, which is completely insensitive. And I’m sure the parents are thinking later, “This isn’t what I wanted my marriage to look like, but this is what it looks like.” And so when we talk about the guiding relationship, we’re talking about having the parents on the same page and we’re talking about the child in the role of the apprentice and that role is when a voice, “What are you gonna teach me next, Mommy? What are you gonna teach me next, Daddy?”

Kat Lee: How important is it for parents to make sure they take time for their own relationship? Because I see… Parents struggle anyway, right? We know this. We know family members who have young, young children. It’s hard enough anyway. How important is it that families who have vulnerable children, that parents make sure they take time for each other? 

Dr. Sheely: It’s so important, but it’s also precarious because I have people who are at odds going out to dinner is, “Do we talk about autism or are we still at odds with each other?” So really thinking through how parents come back together again, it doesn’t happen with a date. It doesn’t happen with a weekend. It happens when parents begin to see each other in the same light they saw each other when they first met, and I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do. But for most of our parents, I can see that they get on the same page and they can do it pretty quickly because they have this superordinate goal. They’re working on something together. And once they begin to work on something together, then they begin to do other things together. They go to a movie together. They have dinner together. They send the kids to grandmom, and they go away for a weekend together.

Kat Lee: Sounds lovely except we’re grandmothers. [laughter]

Dr. Sheely: And we’re the people who get the children for the weekend.

Kat Lee: Indeed, indeed. Well, I love our RDI model because it doesn’t just focus on the children, which is so important, but we do focus… The RDI model is wonderful for relationships, all relationships, and I’m so thankful for it.

Dr. Sheely: I think when Steve and I sat at our kitchen table thinking, “What do we call this thing we’re doing,” because we had been doing it, but we hadn’t called it anything. And we kept thinking about relationships, and so, Relationship Development Intervention, we really weren’t thinking about the extended relationships, but now we are. And so it was a perfect title for what we’re doing, Relationship Development Intervention. And I think my advice to parents is, when you work with a consultant, part of your work needs to be, “How does everybody get on the same page and how do you come together as a family?” Not an autism family, but how do you come together as a family? We’re gonna deal with autism, but you know you’re going to deal with a lot of other things too. And it’s just one facet of what you’re going to be doing as parents to make sure you’re on the same page, first of all, with each other.

Kat Lee: Thanks for joining us for this special edition of ASD: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child, and we do encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.


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