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Autism Spectrum Disorder is a reality for the families of one of every 68 children in the United States. As April’s Autism Awareness Month draws to a close, we’re looking to the people living with autism on a daily basis. It’s easy for parents to dedicate much of their time to making their kid’s life as typical as possible when living with an autism diagnois, but what about the other relationships in the house?
Doug and Leslie Gustafson, the husband-and-wife team behind Authentic & True counseling in Lone Tree, figured they’d be ahead of the curve when it came to molding their family life around their now 15-year-old autistic son Jacob. But the duo, who specialize in relationship, marriage, and sex therapy, found they needed to make a concerted effort to keep their marriage strong. We sat down with the pair to talk about their son, their partnership, and the reality of raising a child with autism.
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5280: When your son was first diagnosed with autism at four years old, what was your reaction?
Leslie: It was derailing and confusing.
Doug: When your child is diagnosed with autism, it’s hard because there are no benchmarks. Every kid is somewhere different on the spectrum. You just try anything as a parent to help them succeed.
How did you explain his diagnosis to him?
Leslie: For many years, we waited until he was developmentally ready to explain his autism [to him]. It wasn’t until he saw a sign in a toy store, when he was about 11 years old, about autism. He started asking questions and we were honest with him. It wasn’t always easy, but he came to terms with it over the next year.
How do you maintain a strong marriage while parenting a child with autism?
Doug: It’s difficult not to allow parenting to eclipse your marriage. There is significant involvement in time and money with a typical child, but it’s heightened 10-fold when autism is present. We knew we needed our marriage to grow in this.
Leslie: We want to keep fun and playfulness in our home. We need our marriage to emulate things we want him to experience.
What are the biggest challenges you face as parents to a child with autism?
Doug: With typical children, you may have two people with varying parenting styles. Instead of each of us managing our individual styles, we have to parent based on the situation or our son’s current symptoms.
Leslie: It’s hard not to absorb the stress from your kids. Your self-esteem is wrapped up in your kids. We are so hard on ourselves. With children on the spectrum, some like our son really struggle to bond. He was seven years old before he said “I love you” to us.
What does the future look like for your son and your marriage?
Leslie: Our biggest worry is the future. Our son is bright enough to go to college, but he has troubles with organization and keeping on track. We hope he finds his own individual life outside of our home.
Doug: And, as we continue to take care of our son, we’re keeping up with our marriage too. If you maintain your marriage throughout the time you raise your kids, you’ll actually look forward to spending time with your spouse after the kids leave.
Follow assistant editor Lindsey R. McKissick on Twitter @LindseyRMcK.