Educating Your Command About Your Family’s Special Needs in Autism, Part #1

There is something important that you have to accept as a proud military service member who is serving your country: that your family situation and the special needs required of your EFMP, autistic dependent(s) require a greater investment of your personal time and resources than that of your battle buddies in your unit. This is something that your chain of command also deserves and needs to know about you. At some point you are going to have to personally come to terms that your home life will in all likelihood be more challenging and difficult than most others. Period. Your co-workers who have typical developing kids at home have NO idea how easy they have it compared to the stress and problems you many times have to deal with when you go home at the end of the day.

The job of the parent of an autistic child never ends. When you leave at the end of your duty day, many times it is just to rush home to provide respite (even if ever so briefly) to your hardworking spouse who has been at home all day surrounded by autism and its needs. Perhaps you even have to get home to be with the kids because your spouse works part time in the evening! You don’t have the luxury of going home to a normal, typical family dinner to discuss the school day with your kids, plan the family’s weekend getaway at the beach this weekend in peace and harmony and work on the normal homework that kids bring home every day. Nope. Sorry. Many times you come home to a meltdown (sometimes it’s your spouse who today just could not keep it together without having a temporary breakdown because of the stress) and there may perhaps be screams, crying or wailing; toys being thrown around the house, confusion and disarray as the house has everything strewn into every far corner of every room as the result of the typical play of the autistic child. Dinner is eventually eaten at some point in time between when you arrive at home and before you go to bed. Then again, sometimes there isn’t even time for that! Sometimes it is even eaten by just standing at the counter in the kitchen, alone, as your kind and loving wife gives her last ounce of strength to the kids by giving them a bath as she hopes and prays to God, “Please let the kids go down easy tonight so I can have a moment to share with my husband.” There may be a brief exchange of how days were, but you know how the day was for your spouse. It was just like yesterday, and the day before that. Hard. Sometimes painful. And always exhausting. Your day started at 0500 with PT followed by a typical duty day of Soldiering and training. You may have had a very challenging day today, but you know there really is no time or outlet to be sharing those petty problems in this house dominated by the needs of autistic kids and helping your wife maintain her sanity. You keep your personal problems to yourself and you dare not share it with your sweetheart as she had already reached her emotional capacity four hours before you ever got home. Don’t get me wrong, she certainly cares about your day. She loves and is committed to you and the kids, but many times there just isn’t enough time for quality relationship and communication time with special needs in the home. Then, later in the evening at some late hour as you both try to drift off to sleep, letting the day go and giving it up to God as another day in service to your family’s needs, you know that the alarm clock is going to go off in another six hours and it starts all over again. Perhaps tomorrow will be a little bit better than today was for all of us. Many times all you can do is pray for sustenance. And then, DAMN, you remember…you have a Class A uniform inspection tomorrow morning and you haven’t even prepared your uniform yet! So, even though you were almost blissfully asleep, you are thankful you remembered your duties for tomorrow. So, you get out of bed, quietly grab all the stuff you need to build your uniform and sneak off in private to do just one more task that you don’t have time to get done that day.

Yes. These days can and have been real in our household. More than I’d like to admit. Admittedly though, not all days are like my example above. In fact, because my wife and I make a daily choice to focus on the hope and positivity many days are the exact opposite; days filled with joy and purpose…but always filled with some sort of challenge. This is only a glimpse into a day in the life of. But, if you have a personality and make-up that resembles anything like I used to have, your supervisor, Sergeant, Platoon Leader, First Sergeant or Commander has no clue what your personal and family life is like when you are dismissed for the day. Your pride and maybe perhaps ego leads you to believe that what you go through at home doesn’t need to be shared with any of your leadership. Maybe you believe that it is your problem to handle and you don’t want to trouble them by telling them the extreme challenges you sometimes have at home. Or, maybe you don’t want to share personal issues at work for fear that it may hinder your career, or that you would be treated differently, treated negatively, harassed or they may think you are sharing your circumstances so you can receive special treatment or be excused from certain work requirements. Maybe it is just too difficult for you to explain your home life to them in a way that they WILL understand, or you don’t know how or the words to use to describe those challenges at home.

If your chain of command is in the dark about your EFMP needs, what autism is, the effect it has on your spouse and family, the special medical and educational interventions that your child(ren) require, the added burdens, challenges and responsibilities that come with rearing an autistic child, then you need to finally address it with them. If you don’t, at some point some challenge or obstacle is going to radically come up and take you out of the unit’s mission temporarily. It’s going to happen. The needs that autism creates for your family are too great to not interfere with your daily work routines in some form. If you don’t properly prepare your chain of command with a thorough understanding of your home life, they may mistake your change of attitude or behavior as a potential negative event because they do not understand the underlying cause. There are going to be days that you will have to miss duty because of medical appointments, educational interventions, meetings with teachers and administrators at school, and a dynamic list of other things that autism is going to require of both you and your spouse. You have to prepare by preparing those with whom you work about potential home difficulties that may arise at some point during the time you are assigned at that unit.

In the next few postings I am going to try to provide some of the best practices that I have learned to create the open, honest communication throughout your chain of command as it relates to your family’s special needs. This is so critical and necessary to do. No Soldier likes to arrive at their new assignment feeling like they are bringing a boxcar full of problem baggage called ‘dependent issues’ with them. You may thing this throws up the red flag that you aren’t going to be pulling your weight around the unit. I want to help you get over that feeling, help you understand from a leader’s perspective why that is a false belief and empower you with how and what to say to your chain of command to help them properly help you and your family. If you embody certain values, Army Values, and principles in your character and then are able to communicate your needs in way that actually builds trust and paves the pathway for the inevitable challenges you will do more than just be able to take care of business at home, you will also implicitly label yourself as your chain of commands newest leader and problem solver. It is my hope to convey the tips and the value for doing this right away and when you land on the doorstep of your next assignment!
Until the next post!

In Advocacy,

Mike