Carers needs to look after themselves, in order to have the strength to care for others.
The Davidson Family Tragedy – A Warning
I’ve done a lot of thinking the last couple of days about the Davidson family tragedy. So much has been written about it, and so little is really known about what caused Fernando Manrique to gas his two children, his wife, the family dog – and of course, himself, to death in their family home. It is a tragedy so horrible that we recoil instinctively from the idea of a man killing his entire family and we think what a monster he must be.
How must it be, to carefully plan the murder of your whole family? To spend the weekend putting up pipes in your roof, so that the gas will spread more effectively throughout the house? Watch your wife go off for coffee with her close friends, other mothers at your children’s special school, and know it will be the last time she will see them? How can you look at your children’s little faces, and think they will be better off not alive?
Autism Is No Excuse For Abuse
Both of the children in this family had severe autism. But this is no excuse.
Nothing can excuse hurting your family. Autism is irrelevant, special needs are irrelevant. I know that if anyone tried to hurt a hair on Michael’s head, I would skin them alive with a cheese-grater (hair-dressers take note!). But if we find the reason for it we might be able to prevent it from happening again.
I look at them as a couple. A successful executive with a wife that was a strong fighter for her children. She supported her community and was such a strong advocate for autism awareness. He was an apparently loving father. So apparently similar to my husband and myself.
I have considered living in the suburb in which they live. I have considered sending my son to the same school their children went to. How many precious weekends had their father spent putting up special safety gates for his kids? Putting up their trampoline? Driving them to school or to therapy?
Their kids were ten and eleven when they died. Why would he make it through the baby years, the toddler years, and crack now – when they are at school, when they at any rate have more skills than they did?
I know it may get harder for us
My first reaction was horror and shock, when I heard about the tragedy. And then I got uncomfortable. Would I survive, under the kind of pressure these people were under? I only have one child with special needs. He isn’t severe although he is towards the middle of the spectrum, and he is improving every day. But if we do have another child, there is about a 15% chance that this child will also have autism and may have complex needs as well. I hope that if this does happen, if we do struggle, that we ask for help and don’t let it fester.
Michael is so young that there is a lot of hope left for what he may be able to achieve one day. That he may learn to manage any weaknesses and discover his strengths.
We know that he is a very happy toddler with a joyful childhood so far. He seems to be a kind of charmed kid. He knows that he is loved by everyone. I hope we will have the energy to continue looking after him to this extent as well as caring for our next child, if or when we have one.
Unlike the couple from Davidson, most of whose family were overseas, my husband and I have a lot of support. Our family is always there for us, and we have therapists to help us with our son. We go out together, as a couple, all the time. Because our son handles change quite well, we can travel – we are planning a holiday right now. We can take turns at night when Michael is up for three hours or when he decides to get up at 4am, because we only have one child at the moment.
Having a Child with Special Needs Is Hard
When Michael was born, it was a shock to us. We were one of those disgustingly sickening couples that would cuddle for hours and would spend a whole day doing nothing in particular – just being together was enough. I guarantee you wouldn’t have been able to watch us for five minutes without feeling physically ill.
When Michael was born and I had to breastfeed him what felt like every moment of the day, it really cut into our cuddle time. We became like ships in the night, never meeting, and to some extent that is still true – although now Michael is older and needs less naps we can do many more enjoyable things together as a family.
The Importance of Maintaining Your Relationship
My husband has been fighting for his right to spend alone time with me ever since Michael was born. I have to admit that he makes a bigger effort than me to make sure we go out together, that we still go to birthday parties and weddings and out to celebrate special events.
And that is wonderful. It is great that he has always felt he can tell me if he is unhappy or if he misses me – it is a testament to the type of family he was raised in, that he feels completely comfortable letting me know if something is wrong.
I think often mothers lose themselves in their children, maybe too much. I remember in Michael’s first year of life I would cry if I had to be away from him for even an hour (on my way to the hairdresser – true story!). My husband’s role has been to help me as much as he can, and of course he’s a fantastic father – he is the favourite parent in our little family.
He has also been great at reminding me that life as we know it is not over just because we have a child, and that looking after ourselves is just as important as looking after Michael.
Rest Can Make You A Better Carer
My husband is the one that pushes me to bed when I have been up half the night. I fight him, put one more load of laundry on. Eventually I go to bed muttering about how I’m not tired even a bit and probably won’t fall asleep anyway. I hate the world and can’t see anything positive in my life. I think about Michael and remember only the things he is having trouble with. How he will learn basic life skills like reading or counting? That’s right, sleep deprivation turns me into a two-year-old.
I wake up after crashing within five minutes. I am happy. The world is a wonderful place, the birds are singing, and all the people are lovely. I hang up my beautiful clean sheets and I am full of energy to get on with Michael’s therapy. He seems to have improved so much in his self-management skills in the hour that I’ve been asleep!
In my culture, men are taught to bottle up their emotions, to be strong at all costs. A famous Russian actor once said that his mother taught him that a man only has the right to say that he is tired once in his life, just before he dies. I’m pretty sure he was a lifelong alcoholic, so beware of this advice.
Autism Parents – Your Needs Are Special Too
So I say to all the autism mums and dads out there, you are allowed to be tired, you are allowed to ask for a rest. It is Carers Week this week, so let this be the week you go on the Carers Australia website at www.carersaustralia.com.au and check out what help exists.
Use the respite service regularly – the mountains of initial paperwork subside eventually.
Check out what the NDIS can do in terms of funding babysitters so you can go somewhere with your partner. If it is not active in your area yet, it will be within the next couple of years.
Go to your GP and get a mental health plan. The Better Access to Mental Health Scheme grants a rebate for ten individual and ten group sessions per year to every Australian. Take advantage of it.
Ask your family for help. It can be easy to pretend that everything is ok to them, so you can avoid the annoying advice. Even if they can’t help with therapy they can help with the laundry or cook you dinner. I have written previously about what family members of autism parents can do to help and they can be such a fantastic source of support and babysitting.
If you neglect your physical health, you might wake up one day with a serious condition that is increasingly hard to do anything about. Your mental health is the same. See a counselor or a psychiatrist. Think of your mental health as needing the same care and check ups that your physical health requires.