I like to use exercise as an outlet for some of my daily stress. While most days, I just have time to push my little guy’s stroller around the neighborhood, I love to practice yoga. Of course, I don’t get to nearly as much as I’d like to, but I always feel great after I get the chance. Sometimes I get to take classes, and sometimes I get to take 10 minutes (in a row!) to get quiet, stretch out in the living room, even try a new pose or push myself further in another one. It recently hit me, mid pigeon pose, that raising a child with Autism can be a lot like practicing yoga.
First of all, no one masters yoga, that’s why it’s called a practice. That’s how I feel about motherhood in general- not just parenting a child with a disability! Sometimes I need to take that pressure off myself; that pressure that I should have this down by now, be able to cope better during the difficult hours or days or weeks. My daughter is ten, so I have been at this Autism parenting thing for a while, and it’s a constant practice for me.
Yoga and Autism parenting both require flexibility, strength, willingness to modify, and the understanding that everything is temporary.
Most people who practice yoga do not start out standing on their heads or even able to touch their toes in a forward fold. It takes time and patience. Flexibility isn’t something that comes naturally to us all. Little by little, with practice, flexibility can grow. No one is expected to understand everything about Autism or even about our own children. We bend and flex and change and grow alongside our children. I have had countless beautiful and special moments raising my daughter, though it has been hard and painful at times. It’s hard to see my child struggle, it’s hard to see other families not experience all that my family has had to endure, it’s hard not knowing how to help my child, make her feel better in her skin. It’s hard. There’s not much room for weakness. On my yoga mat, I’m always reminded of my strength. Feeling like I can hold a pose past what I thought was my “edge” or balancing while twisted up and on only one foot proves to me that I’m stronger than I think I am. When I feel strong, I am always more patient because I believe in myself and in the process. Taking the strength I feel while I’m on my mat out into my world off the mat is always my focus in yoga; that’s always the goal for me.
Being willing to modify is the name of the game in raising a child on the spectrum. You can be all set and ready to walk out the door to an event you’d been planning on for weeks and boom! a meltdown occurs. Change in plans! Raising a child with autism requires a willingness to modify, to go with the flow, and to be okay with expectations not being met. Modification is not failure, it’s simply an adjustment, and adaptation. A headstand using the wall for support or a headstand in the middle of the room is still called a headstand.
And finally, yoga and Autism parenting both require the understanding that everything is temporary. Meltdowns are temporary. Behavioral flare-ups are temporary. Periods of plateau in progress are temporary. Sometimes, even regressions are temporary. I can move my body into some very strange positions and be just fine and comfortable (even if for just 10 seconds!) and others are incredibly unbearable and uncomfortable. Just when my body starts screaming to get out of a pose, it’s time to change positions. It’s been invaluable for me to learn that if something doesn’t feel right, it’s a temporary feeling. I don’t have to be stuck there. I can modify my position, my attitude, my behavior. Of course, just because I know I can doesn’t mean it comes easily. It’s a practice.
All these things: flexibility, strength, willingness to modify and knowing it’s all temporary increase over time. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Both practicing yoga and raising a child on the spectrum take perseverance. We fall over 8 times and get up 9. We keep practicing over and over and over and sometimes, if we never give up, we can totally nail a pose!
Dani Gillman is Cofounder and Head of Marketing at Birdhouse– a Detroit-based startup empowering parents raising children with special needs to learn more about their children through a behavior journaling app for iPhone, Android and the web. She’s also mom to a 10 year old daughter (who happens to have Autism) and a 1 year old son (who has yet to appreciate the value of naps).