“Previous studies carried out in Euro-American populations have unequivocally indicated that psychological disorders of the CASD (caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder) are marked with high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression”.
This certainly proved true for me.
At around age 28, I had taken up running as a means to quit smoking. I’d tried quitting a zillion times before, but eventually with the combination of the nicotine patch and running, it finally stuck. I’d rightly deduced that I couldn’t run and smoke simultaneously, and running kept my lungs occupied while providing endorphins to push me past the pain of quitting.
The running bug more or less stuck with me over the years, and after Brian was born, I pushed him along the trails in my super cool new jog stroller. When Evan came along, we purchased a double jog stroller, and the two of them were my running companions. This happy time was “BASDD” – before the ASD diagnoses.
AASDD, after the ASD diagnoses, life of course, changed dramatically, and running took a back seat to other more urgent demands. A tsunami of frustrations and struggles marked our activities of daily living, and I found myself dropping into depression. I worried constantly. Would Brian survive his childhood without hospitalization or jail? Would Evan ever get that light back in his eyes…the connectedness and loving gaze from his early childhood days? Would my marriage survive? Would we be able to afford all the therapies? Would the school system provide the services the boys desperately needed?
People gave me unsolicited, well-intended, but ultimately useless advice that left me feeling like I was doing it all wrong. Their neurotypical kids with their time outs and reward charts for good behavior didn’t fly in our world. We were a traveling circus of meltdowns and raised voices, and were “stared at” in the finest establishments, grocery stores, restaurants and malls in Atlanta. For the record, I hate being stared at!
When an 8-year-old Brian experienced his sensory meltdown, slapped the headmaster, and was subsequently expelled, the painful one-two punch hit me hard. I felt embarrassed at my out-of-control son, and it was especially difficult because I worked in the admin office at the school.
I quit working for a time to homeschool him and sank further into depression. But even in the months leading up to that fateful transition, the demands of raising two boys on the spectrum had me feeling very down. I would find myself weeping uncontrollably. I didn’t sleep well and was tired all the time. I didn’t want to spend unstructured time around others, preferring to be with my boys or alone. The sadness and isolation became worse as I missed my wonderful co-workers and mourned losing my beloved job.
Even within the autism community, we had our outcast moments. I recall one such stressful episode. Members from our autism support group were on a field trip to a bouncy house play area. As part of the precautionary measures, all participants had to view a safety video. Afterwards, the employee administering the safety briefing randomly asked the kids questions to test their understanding. The son of our autism support group leader was asked a question, and didn’t respond. My Brian with Asperger’s, in an attempt to be helpful, piped up that the kid wasn’t answering because he had autism.
It was as if Brian had simultaneously cussed out and slapped the kid’s mom. She was angry and shocked and quite upset. Apparently in her household, the “a” word wasn’t discussed, but that genie wasn’t going back into the bottle. Brian had let the cat out of the bag, and she was livid. Unfortunately, our relationship was never quite the same afterward.
Over the years, I met with psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists, and played guinea pig in an attempt at finding the right balance of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds. As much as I didn’t want to need them; time, and repeated mental smackdowns convinced me that wishing it weren’t so…didn’t make it not so.
Undergoing these years of chronic stress, loneliness, anxiety, fear, and doubt was life changing, and as it turns out, “brain changing” as well. In a study published in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers found that chronic stress results in long-term changes in the brain. These changes, they suggest, might help explain why those who experience chronic stress are also more prone to mood and anxiety disorders later on in life. Stress might play a role in the development of mental disorders such as depression and various emotional disorders. And raising ASD kids is one of the most stressful parenting circumstances.
On the other hand, in a study, published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, researchers found running prevents stress from wreaking havoc on your brain—particularly on the part tasked with learning and memory.
Exercise is also considered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and it can reduce stress. Studies show that it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.
It took a while to get it, but for me, running and exercise are not optional. Most folks I know work out for their physical health, but that’s not my main focus. It’s absolutely mandatory for my mental state that I work out daily. This means prioritization of physical exercise with no excuses. Other things will wait. Others may exercise “if they have time”. I must make the time.
Consequently, my house is never all that tidy and picture perfect. I’m behind on several projects. Ironically, I’m a good fifteen pounds overweight (menopause has done a number on my metabolism!), but I just ran a half-marathon last weekend in 2 hours, 28 minutes. I can climb 30 flights of stairs without passing out. I survive a weekly spin class with thinner, younger people. My mind is clearer. I find that if I start each day with some form of physical activity, and sometimes it’s merely a climb to my eighth-floor office, I’m more focused and less anxious.
Over the years, running has become a family activity. Brian doesn’t like the “running” part of running much, and generally will only run obstacle or mud runs, which he finds more entertaining than fun runs. Evan runs daily unless it’s raining or too cold. He actually burns through a pair of shoes every three months!
I’m still on
antidepressants, but now at a much lower dose since they’re combined with my
exercise regimen. I thank God that my
body has held up thus far, and that I’m strong.
My brain may never be as clear and flexible as it was BASDD, but exercise
makes it better and I feel more alert. Each
day I make a conscious choice to run into sanity. It’s the only sensible option for me.