For parents taking care of a child who has autism, life is an everyday challenge. Sometimes, it's good. Other times, not so much. But what if you're a single parent? What if you're a single parent who has bipolar disorder? What would it be like then? With my son and me, I'd say the answer is … interesting.
Having bipolar disorder presents me with all sorts of challenges. I constantly deal with things like chronic fatigue, the mood swings, the depression, the need to isolate, the mania, the racing thoughts, the lack of concentration, the leaps of grandeur, the lack of “normal periods,” and I do have my sense of humor to keep me balanced. But all of this makes me wonder sometimes: Does having bipolar disorder make me a better or worse parent to my son with autism, especially when he has his own unique challenges to face and some of our challenges aren't compatible? So, this is where parenting becomes interesting for us.
If there is one thing that’s true about my son, it's that he needs structure and routine. He has a difficult time with unexpected deviations to any plans that are made. More than one meltdown has been sparked by bipolar disorder fatigue. For example, say we make plans to out somewhere. Without him getting fair warning, those plans change to something he wasn't prepared for. It's usually my fault; thanks to bipolar disorder, I've become so weary with fatigue I can barely move. My heart is in the right place, and I absolutely want to do things with him. However, many times it just doesn't work out. It’s then that I've got a meltdown I've got to help deescalate. There are times when I'm able to push through the fatigue, that's what coping skills are for, right? When it works, it's great. He gets a social lesson he needs, and I may even get to experience a few magical moments, like one time when he broke into a dance at his favorite restaurant and was cheered on by the other diners.
Patience is another issue that can be a challenge. It takes a lot of patience to work with an individual who has autism. Imagine trying to do it when you're in a manic cycle. Normally, I have a surprising amount of patience for my son; more than anyone else with whom he comes in contact with. With all my symptoms, you'd think that wouldn't be true. Yet, I think having bipolar disorder, understanding it and learning to cope with my symptoms gives me greater understanding, patience and empathy for my son. It allows me to handle him when others would be pulling their hair out. There are two distinct events when this is abundantly so. One is when he's scripting, which is a type of delayed echolalia. The other is during a meltdown. The scripting can sometimes be amusing. He's got an amazing memory, and he can verbally reenact the little snippets he repeats with near dead-on accuracy. The voices he imitates are cute. Here's the thing: I know why he does it. I even know why he can't just stop when asked to. Most times, I just go with it. But, as a lot of parents who have children with autism will tell you, scripting gets real old, real fast. As I've said, I usually have patience, but enter the bipolar disorder manic cycle and it takes irritability to a whole new level. It's the same way with his meltdowns. When one begins, I see it starting and I begin the steps to deescalate it before it goes too far. I'm calm and gentle as I try to coax him down. Patience wins the day. Enter mania, and the whole process gets messed up. I don't catch the signals fast enough, and he ratchets higher than he would have if I could have been calmer myself to help him.
My son and I are quite a pair, and life together is interesting. Despite the differences in our diagnoses, I truly believe it works in our favor. In some ways, it makes me glad I have bipolar disorder. There are just too many benefits. It makes me more supportive. Autism or not, I think he's one the greatest kids in the world.
Read more from Jae here.