Autism and Stoicism I
by Chris Peden
“You are going to have to take some time off in eight months.”
That’s how my wife let me know that we were expecting our first child. I can tell you where she was standing, how her feet were positioned and how her face looked when she told me. It was one of those moments when time just stopped, and still one of the best days of my life.
But that joy turned into something else a few years later. My son was not speaking as soon as expected, and was tied to very rigid routines and timetables that had to be met. We enrolled him in a special preschool program to deal with the challenges.
And he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and later Autism
Our second son came along, and he too had trouble speaking, and had problems with his fine motor skills.
Another son, another Autism diagnosis.
What is Autism?
So what does it mean to be autistic? The answer really is “it depends”. Since Autism is a spectrum, it is really hard to label certain people as autistic because their symptoms can vary. However, there certain common characteristics that we have had to deal with that are common to those on the spectrum. We have seen and dealt with the following:
1) Rigidity in routines and expectations – everything has to happen according to a certain schedule and under certain conditions. While this could extend to not being able to wear certain types of fabric, ours mostly were about making sure that we were home in time for a certain show to be on. I would have loved a DVR back then.
2) Lack of sleep – Most autistic people don’t produce enough melatonin, which is the chemical in the brain that helps you get go to sleep. There were more than a few nights when we had to get up to comfort a child who woke up with a nightmare or just couldn’t sleep.
3) Sensitivity to stimuli – Restaurants and public places were problems because everything happening around them overloaded their senses, resulting in the flight or fight response, with them either running away or having a temper tantrums.
4) Violent outbursts – The temper tantrums are legendary. We have had quite a few pieces of furniture broken, mattresses thrown down stairs, and even a flooded basement due to a temper tantrum as a result of small event that they couldn’t process.
5) Bad days at school – The school system did the best they could, but sometimes the outburst lead to calls home to come pick someone up, or drive them into school because all the activity on the bus overwhelmed their system.
Put all this together and you have a pretty challenging situation. The hardest part for my wife and I has been the isolation. Taking the kids out for a normal outing to most places actually overwhelms their system, and we end up either finding a quiet place where they can recover, or just decide not to go out at all. While it would be great to do what other families do on a daily basis without thinking about it, making sure they are safe and feeling secure has trumped everything we have done.
The question I get most is “how do you handle all of this?” For a while, I didn’t really have a solution myself, and would be spending most every day frustrated and disgusted with life, cursing that life could do something so unfair not only our kids, but to me and my wife as well. Why us, and how do we keep going?
I have always been a reader, and can’t tell you how many books I have read over the course of my life. I somehow got introduced to Tim Ferris, and his posts how Stoicism has helped him live a better life. The more I read, the more intrigued I became of the practices and how they could help my life. I started to read more, and developed an appreciation for what stoics do.
I had always thought stoics were very unemotional robots who spent their lives not feeling anything. They almost seemed like they had developed a detachment from any feeling whatsoever, and had suppressed any emotion they had. These robots seemed to be able to avoid feeling anything at all. I thought “that’s what I need to help me deal with everything happening. Not feel any emotion at all.”
Boy, was I wrong about that. The more I read, the more I found out that Stoics are not the dour persons they have been represented to be, but they changed their focus to eliminating holding on to of negative emotions. They do feel emotions, just don’t let them rule their lives. And they aren’t withdrawn from life, but actively engaged in it. I learned about Marcus Aurelius, who as Roman emperor had the world at his feet, but was also a Stoic. I have a feeling it helped him run an empire.
How the Practices Helped
So, how did I use what I learned? There are a few practices that were very helpful to me as I moved along my journey. The first of these was train my perception to avoid labeling something good or bad. As Marcus Aurelius said “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been”. It is easy to feel as though your autistic children are fighting with you when they are having their temper tantrums, or refuse to do the simplest task they have been assigned, or even go into a restaurant for a fun family event. However, when you open up your perception to see what is really going on, you stop labeling their behavior as “bad” and actually see they are overwhelmed or even scared. Once that happens you are able to deal with the situation as it is, and aren’t spending time on what you think the situation “should” be like.
Another way this practice has helped is in dealing with the judgments and comments of other people. There will always be people who will say something rude about your child, or how you are raising them. It is going to happen. By choosing not to be harmed by what they say, you take away their power to make you do what they want, which is react and show that they are the superior person. In addition, when someone offers a constructive comment, you can judge how applicable it is to your situation without thinking they are saying something about you personally.
The second habit that helped in dealing with our situation was practicing misfortune. Seneca once said that “Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty and rarely in experience. Anyone who has made a big bet on themselves knows how much energy both states can consume”. We have had several things that have happened that were the “worst thing that could have happened”. However, when it was done, we were still standing, and were able to move on to the next event in our lives.
There have been a few times when we got a phone call about something one of the kids did that put us into panic mode, and wonder how we were going to survive it. However, after the problem was solved, the situation wasn’t as bad as the initial feeling made it out to be. It really has helped us realized that by experiencing the thing that makes you scared, you find out that what happens is not as traumatic as you had thought it was going to be. This has helped me as I have started my accounting and tax business. I know that if I focus on taking care of my clients and do what is right, I can handle whatever the business throws at me.
Lastly, keeping in mind that everything is ephemeral is very helpful. Marcus Aurelius once said:
“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”
The struggles that we are going through are not going to last forever. They will pass. This is harder in the new world of social media, where it is easy to get jealous of people posting their vacation photos, as well as pictures of what seems to be a perfect life online.
What would happen if we were to have those same things? The vacations end. The house gets dirty. The car gets dinged. Everyone has trouble with their kids. Getting jealous of the achievements of others does nothing to bring peace to your life. We need to set our own goals based on what really would make us happy in our own life, work hard to get it, but most of all enjoy the journey that comes with the pursuit.
I consider myself a Catholic Stoic. I follow, and believe in, what I learned about my Catholic faith. But learning about Stoicism has given me a perspective on life that has allowed me to look beyond what is happening in the here and now to see the deeper meaning in what is occurring. By stepping back and seeing things for the way they actually are, I get to see the beauty in life, the joy in the struggles, and get one step closer to God.
Chris Peden is a CPA who not only helps people and small businesses with their taxes and bookkeeping, but has written articles for GoDaddy and the Intuit Small Business Blog that help small business owners understand the sometimes confusing topics related to accounting and tax. He is also the father of two autistic boys, and has used the teachings of Stoicism and his Catholic faith to better deal with the challenges that come from raising special needs children. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.