If you are a parent of a child on the autism spectrum then I know that you don’t really have much time to read this. Maybe you are thinking of becoming a doula but unsure if you can make it work with your family, or maybe you already are a doula and have been wading through the guilt and meltdowns as you are gone for hours. I want to share some tips with you that worked for my family and I encourage everyone to comment and leave your own tips because we can learn so much from each other. I recognize that each child is unique and the very word “spectrum” entails a wide range of unique delights and challenges.
- Weekly calendar of each days plan- You can include the name of the person they will be with or the place they will go. If your child doesn’t read then you can have a picture of symbol assigned to each person. Make sure it’s large enough to see easily and in a room where they can easily access it. Lots of spectrum children are very visual and being able to view it as often as they need to can calm them down. Not knowing what is coming up next is a common cause for anxiety.
- Verbally tell them each morning- You wrote down the plan on the calendar, but a reminder in the morning before they head to school, or at breakfast before you start your day. Just a quick, “remember that today is Auntie day, so if my client calls me then Auntie will pick you up from school.”
- Share the Plan- Be sure the other family members in your home know the plan so they aren’t forced to come up with a different plan in your absence. You may not be able to answer your phone or receive a text if the labor is very intense when they try to reach you. (This tip is from my husband who may have dealt with more than one meltdown from changing the plan because I forgot to tell him what it was.)
- Special Treats- I am not above bribery. This could be a treat while you are away, like watching a favorite movie, ordering pizza or favorite food, perhaps a special fidget or weighted pillow that only comes out when you are away. The point is that they can look forward to this treat happening once you do go to the birth so they aren’t dreading you being called to the birth.
- Reliable Childcare- We all know that when plans change it can end in enormous and long meltdowns. Be sure that you have care arranged from someone who isn’t going to flake and also someone who knows how to care for your child’s unique needs. This may mean that you are paying an on-call nanny, or perhaps you have rock solid friends who you trade with. I wouldn’t recommend relying completely on your spouse if you plan to doula as a career because they can only miss work so many times before it’s a problem. Think you can’t afford childcare? Guess what, you aren’t charging enough. Raise your rates so that it doesn’t cost YOU to attend a birth. Even doulas who are working toward certification can charge for their services. (You may be able to get care through state services if your child has an official diagnosis of ASD.)
- Self Care- You know that on-call nanny I mentioned above? Maybe you use her for an extra hour or two for yourself (or a date with your partner) the day after a birth. Being the parent of a child with autism can be both emotionally and physically draining. Guess what, being a doula can do the same thing. Be sure that you are taking time to fill yourself back up after a birth. Chances are good that you will be hyper right after the birth (even if it was 24 hours long) but once the adrenaline runs out of your system take some time to recharge. Maybe you skip the nanny and instead your kid binge watches Dora The Explorer while you have a cup of tea and read a book. Whatever you have to do to make some self care time happen, it will be the thing that keeps you able to continue doula work for years and years.
This may seem like a lot to do just to go to a birth but try not to get overwhelmed. The thing is, that parents of kids on the spectrum actually make incredible doulas. They are already used to tuning in to another person’s needs, a person who may not be into verbal conversation. During labor, many people go into that instinctual part of their brain and are no longer up for talking or answering questions. You will need to tune into them, to see their needs rather than hear them.
Many kids on the spectrum are overwhelmed by their own emotions and have trouble making since of them or knowing what to do next. If you have ever seen someone in the transition stage of labor then you may have seen anger, fear, sadness, and many other emotions emerge and often this can be overwhelming and scary to the person experiencing it. “Why am I crying, I am sorry, I don’t know why this is happening.” I hear it often at births, and you most likely already have skills to help them through this to accept the emotions and even the tears coming out of them. Meltdowns and Transition are very similar, a loss of control and overwhelming emotion. Your personal experience of being a parent is going to be such a benefit to your clients.