Homeschooling neurodiverse and high needs children has its own set of unique challenges. Getting through the day can be exhausting, with little left over for our partners. I sat down with relationship coach Rach Wilson to ask her about her work with parents of neurodiverse kids and see what suggestions she had to share with us.
Why did you choose this area of coaching?
Not only do I have the professional expertise to help anyone with their relationship, but my personal experience has been significant when it comes to raising children with neurodiverse brains and the complexity of the pressures and extra stresses it puts on the relationship.
My husband and I survived what we call our own “Hell Year.” We’ve been together 22 years. We’ve had the strongest relationship the entire time, except when Hell Year hit and it meant that both of us were in survival mode.
When you’ve got two people in survival mode, you lose a lot of the connection that you once had, including intimacy. When you’re ridiculously sleep-deprived, sex goes out the window. All of the big things that you did to connect in the relationship are no longer happening. So we had to learn how to connect and stay together through the hardest year of our lives for us as a couple, for us as individuals, and for us as a family.
When achieving that, getting to the other side, having to rebuild our relationship to get back to thriving, a lot of that gave me so much understanding as to the hardships that many couples face when they’ve got children with special needs or extra needs. It is a whole other level of stress and trauma that each individual needs to go through and process and try and still maintain a relationship, work, and life.
Having survived Hell Year, it felt like the most natural place to put myself where I could do the most good, bringing all that knowledge and expertise around building strong relationships while having the empathy and understanding of someone who has been through it.
Do you work with one partner or both partners together?
I can do either. Ideally I would work with both because that makes the most difference. Often there’s one partner that wants to fix the relationship and one that’s not quite ready to or is in denial or resistance. That makes things harder, but not impossible.
Relationships are fluid in that you impact one, it impacts the other. Change one in the way they are interacting and it changes the way the other responds. So, there’s a lot of good that can be done, even if I’m just working with one person.
But, ideally I’m working with both to help them learn better communication skills, better relating skills. I’m helping both of them to become more aware and feel their own personal, emotional baggage, and the stuff that they’ve come into the relationship with. That’s where I can do the most good and the fastest change happens when I’m working with both.
What is the most common challenge couples with neurodiverse children face?
Getting on the same page. When it comes to the diagnosis as well as how to manage their behaviors, most people even without neurodiverse children tend to parent the way that they grew up, or the complete opposite of their parent if their parent was a pretty bad parent.
The other version of that is one parent is in complete denial of the child’s diagnosis, or doesn’t want to accept it. That makes it difficult to have one parent that is soaking up all of the information to change the way they’re doing things to be the best for the child, and have the other parent in denial, thinking the child just needs to harden up or better discipline.
Being on separate pages and not working as a team, or even trying to understand the other person’s perspective so you can be on the same team is one of the biggest sticking points.
How can parents separate their relationship as a couple from their relationship as co-parents when parenting high needs children?
Co-parenting is the way to survive being the parents of high needs children. It’s really about coming to a place of acceptance. The amount of time that we would get to be with each other before these kids was way more and it’s not likely to be like that for quite some time – maybe decades and in some cases, maybe never again.
It may be over a decade before my son is able to go into a group home. Between now and then, we have to come up with a way to meet our needs as a couple. Sometimes that may look like at the end of the day – when we’re both exhausted – snuggling in bed and watching a movie together. That might be it for a while.
Finding whatever couple time we can get, when we can get it. It might not be the date night that everyone else is able to create for themselves. It’s the smaller things– the coffee dates, the snuggles at the end of the day.
If you can manage to organize a date night, fantastic! Do it! Those are the nights when you don’t talk about the children. They don’t exist in your world for that short period of time. It’s all about getting back to, “How are you really doing?” Let’s have a conversation and just share what are you struggling with and how can I support you? Is there another way that we can do this? What are your thoughts? What are your needs that maybe I’m not meeting? Can we find another way to meet those?
This is the time to reset the relationship because we do get out of whack when we’re constantly focused on the kids. We can be on the same page and working for the kids, but we don’t get a lot of time to debrief and check in on the relationship itself.
If you only get to check in on the relationship once a week, you can find out what the other person needs. That’s the best way to approach it. One, accepting how things are right now and, two, finding time to check in and create “us” time.
Afsaneh has been an educator for over 20 years. She has taught students from preschool to graduate school and now homeschools her own child and coaches homeschooling families in how to teach their children based on individual learning styles, interests, needs, and connection so that the whole family can thrive. She is also the author of the picture books series Jamie is Jamie.