Balancing career with a child on the spectrum
21-Aug-2014. There is no day like this in my life. Our first child, Hussain Ali, was born on this date. It’s embedded deeply in my memory to stay forever. Minutes after he was born, I left the hospital room and cried like crazy in the car park. I was overjoyed and I cried so much I was inconsolable. I locked myself in the car and let myself cry more — it was therapeutic. Little did I know how difficult the following days would be. He stayed in intensive care for two weeks for suspected meningitis, my heart was sinking throughout that time.
My little munchkin came out of that like a champion and continued his growth — it’s incredible how quickly they grow up. However, over time we noticed some traits which didn’t look usual and so got some professional help from an Educational Psychologist. At two, Hussain was diagnosed to be on the spectrum, with high functioning autism. We reshuffled our priorities and did everything we possibly could to give him the best possible opportunities — we took parents training, hired a behaviour consultant to work with him weekly, a tutor to work with him daily, read dozens of books to equip ourselves with the right tools, flew all over the world speaking to consultants…. we even went through a legal battle with schools and local council to delay his school admission for a year because we believed we could give him better opportunities at home with the consultants we had engaged. It was not just throwing all the money we had into it, but all our time, energy and focus too. It paid off — Hussain has made fast improvements and is on track to join a mainstream primary school later this year and I have no doubts he will excel academically.
A young boy who would cry inconsolably with anxiety to see a stranger at home, now confidently leads the book reading club at his nursery. He was the first child in the nursery to start reading. Every day when I leave work, I start getting calls from him where am I — waiting for me to return and read him some books. I recall when he would breakdown in malls or any busy place… when he wouldn’t handle any rotary noise like washing machines, dryer or any construction work. Sensory overload would take over him… he has the tools to deal with it now.
He is incredibly sharp, clever and bright. But, that does not mean he has cracked it all — his anxiety will live with him, we can only teach him ways to cope with it. Raising a child is a full-time job in itself but its been super challenging with Hussain — but equally rewarding. If there’s one thing in life I am proud of; that’s what we as parents have done for Hussain. But it took a lot, a lot- you live under constant stress, you never get to sleep well and you’re always tired. In such circumstances, managing a successful professional life is hard — really, really hard.
In this blog, I want to talk about how I have been trying to balance my parenting duties (with Hussain, and Haider who is two and a half neurotypical child — opposite personality to Hussain in most ways).
Acceptance of challenges
“Why me!” can be a killer. Take time to adjust to what life has in stock for you. Things happen and the only option you have is to face it. Running away from it, brushing it under the carpet or living in denial leads to no good.
Be open and talk to people who matter
Once you have embraced the challenge, nothing helps more than talking it through. Friends, family members, colleagues — anyone you can trust will help. At times, you may not be behaving as other expects you to, or not aligned with how you normally do — stress does that to you. If you have built a social support network around you, they will understand you, help you but also control judgemental attitude you might get from others who do not know you.
Talk about mental health
1 in 4 people goes through mental health issues at some point in life. This is not a taboo any more. When you are stressed, reaching your limit or cannot take it any more — raise the flag and seek support. There is no shame in it. If you can ask for a day off for being down with flu, you should when you are down with stress.
The most important tool is to find time with your own self. Between work and family responsibilities, you sometimes tend to forget yourself. My technique is to find at least an hour every day and do something I am passionate about. Here are a few things which help me destress:
- lock my self in a room alone after kids are in bed and read a book
- use the commute time wisely to entertain yourself
- avoid scripted routine e.g. I sometimes stop on way to work at a random coffee shop near a random station for a change in scenery
- cooking — its therapeutic! From bringing fresh vegetables home to chopping those mint leaves leaving a beautiful aroma to cooking and then indulging in it… it’s a great way to reconnect with nature and de-stress.
Plan ahead, but embrace uncertainties
Planning is important because you have nearly no time between work, endless appointments, consultants and other family responsibilities. We, as a family, love to travel and so we plan way ahead. But, one must be open to uncertainties. Life with kids, especially with special needs child throws surprises at you. We planned a 12-day road trip in 2015 starting from Bodrum in southwest Turkey to Izmir in the North — we played every single thing in advance; however, we end up spending the last 5 days in a hotel room in Izmir because Hussain caught a hand-foot-and-mouth allergy. We discarded our plans for those 5 days and instead used that opportunity to sample local cuisine. I guess I must have ordered and take food away from more than a dozen places those few days and so ended up learning a lot more about cuisine from that part of Turkey.