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16 Oct

A guide to self-care for caregivers

Caring for an autistic person, whether they’re your child, sibling or someone else, can feel like a full-time job, one that’s often undertaken alongside endless other commitments. Between juggling multiple therapy appointments and constantly advocating for another person’s needs, dedicating enough energy to your own self-care often becomes an afterthought. And although we all understand the importance of putting your mask on before helping others in theory, it’s rare that carers can find the time and resources to appropriately support themselves, even when it matters the most.

In this post, we'll take you through some common challenges experienced by carers and how you can put those self-care tips into practice. We'll also provide links to further information and support.

Common challenges for carers

The stress that carers experience can be exacerbated by a range of factors. Money and career sacrifices, changes to your relationship with your partner or spouse and unsupportive people in your family or community can all take an emotional toll. And if you’re caring for someone who has recently received an autism diagnosis, it may take a while to adjust, regardless of how unexpected that diagnosis was.

Many carers are also in their roles by necessity, not by choice. As a result, many are vastly underprepared for the roles and responsibilities they are forced to take on, and the major disruptions to their routines, social lives and plans for the future can cause subsequent relationship and mental health challenges. A lack of understanding and empathy from the broader community can further contribute to a carer's emotional and social isolation. The unpaid nature of most caring roles can also cause financial strain, which exacerbates other problems.

If you are finding your experience as a carer overwhelming, you can reach out to Carer Gateway to access carer-specific support. You can also read this list of mental health services from the NSW government (most are accessible Australia-wide). If you are in crisis, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or emergency services on 000.

Putting self-care into practice

But how do you put your mask on first before helping others? The first step is to acknowledge that doing just that is one of the hardest things a carer has to do. Many unfortunate stereotypes perpetuate the myth that self-care is a mindless and simple practice indulged in by self-centred people, a direct conflict with the empathetic and selfless nature carers have. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Effective self-care requires a strong understanding of your needs, and in the long-term, make you a better advocate for yourself and others.  

Self-care relates to all aspects of our lives, meaning the more areas of your wellbeing you can address, the better. If you’re just beginning to think about self-care, you might like to focus deeply on one area before considering others. Here are some of our tips to help you get started:

Physical wellbeing

  • Get enough sleep as often and consistently as you can
  • Eat healthy meals. Planning your meals in advance or ordering healthy meal kits might help.
  • Get plenty of exercise. This could be done individually, or you could join a gym, fitness class or community group.

Emotional/mental wellbeing

  • Talk about your feelings and experiences often. This could be informally with a partner or friend, or with a health professional, whoever is able to meet your needs.
  • Learn and practice mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or reflecting on what you're grateful for.
  • Consider joining a support group for carers. Carers Australia provide tailored support, or if you're a carer under 25, you might want to check out Little Dreamers.

Social wellbeing

  • Make time to speak to someone outside of your caring role each day, whether that's in-person, over the phone or online.
  • Prioritise your relationships with family and friends where you can. Let them know how they can help you where appropriate.
  • Join social groups or support groups by and for carers, where you can meet and form friendships with people who understand your experiences.

Perhaps the most important takeaway of this article is that something is always better than nothing. Don’t have time to exercise for an hour? Exercise for ten minutes. Don’t have time to grab coffee with your friend? Set aside time to call or text them. Although the many forms of self-care can initially seem overwhelming, they also mean there’s something out there that everyone can do, and on their own terms.

Where to next?

Caregiving isn’t an easy job, but it’s much easier when you take care of yourself. By honouring your own needs, you'll not only be able to provide the best care possible, but you'll be the best possible version of yourself. Remembering to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others is crucial for ensuring you and those you care for can be at your best.

If you're new to autism as a carer, Autism: What Next? is made for you. Designed by professionals, autistic individuals and the people that love and care for them, this free, digital toolkit provides a step-by-step guide for parents/carers of autistic people in the first twelve months following an autism diagnosis. Click here to access the toolkit now.

For more information for parents and carers in the autism community, visit the links below:

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