Knowing When to Step Away

Survive and thrive while caring for a child with autism.

Posted Dec 20, 2017

Ribbin Higgins/Pixabay
Source: Ribbin Higgins/Pixabay

It was Thanksgiving Day, and I was knee-deep in dinner preparations. Despite my intentions to plan well in advance, it felt like a race against the clock, with last-minute grocery shopping for ingredients, planning table space for 16 guests, making additional dishes to accommodate the one vegetarian in the group and coordinating with family from out-of-town.

As it turned out, I was preoccupied with more than just dinner. I remembered some unfinished tasks from my psychotherapy practice, and the fact that I needed to take my car to the mechanic. I was wondering how I could help my 23-year-old daughter, who is looking for a new job. And, as usual, I was thinking about my son, Noah.

Noah, who is 19 years old, has autism. Ever since he was diagnosed, missing any opportunity to help him grow feels like bad parenting and potential disaster. Earlier in the week, I had gone to Noah's parent-teacher conference, and as I was putting onions on the cutting board, I was obsessing about something I had forgotten to ask one of his teachers.

With all these thoughts swirling around, I wasn't adequately focused on what I was doing. The knife I was using slipped, and I inadvertently cut myself. I asked my husband for a bandage so I could keep chopping onions for the soup.

"All right," said my husband. "That's it. Step away from the knife." He was trying to make a joke of it and adopted the tone of a police officer at a crime scene. But he was serious, too. This was my third self-inflicted kitchen injury in less than 24 hours.

I heard what my husband said, but I wasn't able to step away. I was convinced that I just needed to finish cutting that onion. I started to pick up the knife again.

My husband put his arm around me and led me gently to a couch. "Really," he said, "You need to stop. I'll pick up where you left off. Just please sit for a while." He resumed chopping the onion while I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing. When I finally returned to help with the cooking, I felt a little calmer. The dinner eventually came together with no further mishaps.

Later, I thought about what it was like to be trapped in that vortex of frantic doing. It is, unfortunately, a familiar place for me, especially when I am dealing with my son. 

If you are the parent of a child with special needs, chances are that you, too, can relate to that sense of ongoing urgency. Each new difficulty with your child requires you to "chop that new onion" with the latest "knife." And of course, there are all too many times you can't step away even if you want to – when, for example, you are the only one standing between your child's meltdown and disaster in the produce aisle of the grocery store.

Chelsea Francis/Snapwire
Source: Chelsea Francis/Snapwire

Yet, the constant pressure to do more isn't sustainable. In the face of overwhelming situations, stepping away is like grabbing a life preserver. It is a crucial coping mechanism.

What you choose to do when you have stepped away matters quite a bit. But it all begins with that gesture of stepping away, which is more difficult than it sounds. First, you have to recognize when it is time to step away. During Thanksgiving, my mounting kitchen injuries should have been enough of a signal. But even when you know it is time to step away, it can still be hard to do. My husband literally had to move me over to the couch.

Finding time to be in the middle of all your doing is essential if you are the parent of a child with autism. But recognizing the need to step away from the knife – and actually doing it – continues to be a work in progress for most of us. So, how do you know that it is time to step away? And how do you actually manage to do it?