MASK Syndrome: Signs and Symptoms

7 Jun

Around Mother’s Day, I came across the piece via a Facebook friend’s post.  Boy, did the arrow hit its mark!  But, you know, I think this may apply to most any mom, not just those of us with children on the Autism Spectrum.  What I took from the writings of Lisa Barrett Mann, Kansas-based therapist and author, is confirmation that I’m doing two things right:  I have respite care (which gives me time alone or time alone with my husband for a couple of hours each week) and a great support system of friends, Paige’s teachers and more.

Does any of this ring true to you?

Have you noticed any of these symptoms recently:

• Irritability?
• Hyper-vigilance?
• Repetitive speech?
• Avoidance of social interaction?
• Disregard for personal appearance and social niceties?

I’m not talking about your child with Asperger’s or autism.  I’m talking about you.  And me.  And a common occurrence I’m calling MASK (Mothers of Autism Spectrum Kids) Syndrome.  It occurs when a mom spends so much of her waking life focusing on her child’s special needs and fighting for his interests that, somewhere along the way, she starts to lose touch with the person she used to be.  How ironic it is that, in fighting autism, many of us start to become a little more autistic ourselves.

Irritability.  Are you suffering from lack of sleep?  Worried about your child’s future?  Worried about your family’s finances?  Ever find yourself snapping at your kids for interrupting you, then feeling guilty afterwards for discouraging this social interaction?

Hyper-vigilance.  Do you scan each room you enter for things that might set off a meltdown in your child, such as unusual smells or loud noises?  Do you find yourself doing so even when he isn’t with you?  For that matter, after avoiding those things for so long, do you find that they now irritate you, too?

Avoidance of social interaction.  Do you choose the self-serve lane at the supermarket and the ATM at the bank because doing things by yourself is just easier?  Do you keep meaning to pick up the phone and call a friend, but find yourself too busy or distracted?

Disregard for personal appearance and social niceties.  Have the cute hairdos and perky outfits been replaced by ponytails and sweats?  Do you ever find yourself so rushed and distracted that it’s just annoying when a cashier or neighbor tries to make chitchat with you about the weather?

If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, you too may be suffering from MASK Syndrome.

Interventions for MASK Syndrome

While there’s no known cure for MASK Syndrome, there ARE interventions that can lessen the symptoms and help moms to live happier, more satisfying lives.  And by implementing these interventions, you’ll be setting a great example for your kids by giving priority to social interaction and other activities you need to maintain your health and well-being.

In his new book Staying in the Game: Providing Social Opportunities for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Developmental Disabilities, psychologist Jim Loomis emphasizes that children on the spectrum need lots of social interaction built into their daily lives – a variety of social opportunities where they can successfully practice and generalize their interpersonal skills.  I submit that moms need at least as much social interaction – to maintain our social skills and our mental health.  Let’s take Jim’s itinerary for kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and translate it into something that makes sense for moms with MASK.

Lunch bunch 3-4 times per week.  Most of us live hectic lives, and working through lunch can easily become habit.  Make a commitment to yourself that at least three days a week, you’re going to operate as a social human being.  Go over to the food court with your coworkers, or brown bag it and catch up on the gossip in the lunchroom.  If you’re at home with little ones and you share the lunch table with preschoolers, that may count as social time for them – but not for you.  You need interaction with folks who are interested in topics beyond Blues Clues and Thomas the Train.  So after the dishwasher is loaded, put everybody down to nap or stick in a DVD for 20 minutes, and pick up the phone and call your best friend or sister, and give yourself a dose a grownup time.  (Just don’t spend the 20 minutes talking about the kids!)

One play date every other week.  The great thing about play dates for moms is that you don’t have to referee them – you just have to find time for them!  Sit down with your calendar, get on the phone, and schedule time to spend with friends, at least every couple of weeks.  It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate.  Go together for manicures or a trip to Target, followed by lattés, while Dad watches the kids.  But make sure you schedule in play dates with Dad occasionally, too.  If you can’t find a sitter, trade off watching the kids with another couple who has a child on the spectrum – most, I’ve found, are happy to make such a deal.

Membership in two clubs or organizations.  If you don’t already belong to a group for parents of kids with ASDs, you’re missing out on great social and emotional support.  But also remember that you had interests before you became a harried mom.  Whether it’s decorating or reading murder mysteries, we all need some sort of pleasant diversion, and friendly folks to share it with.  If you’re able to join a local support group and club, great!  But if not, there is a plethora of online discussion groups about just about any interest you can imagine.  A quick search on groups.yahoo.com is often all you need to get started.

If you feel guilty about the idea of trying to plan time and activities apart from your kids, don’t!  How can we teach our kids that socialization is important, healthy, and worthwhile, if we hardly ever take time for it ourselves?  So get pick up the phone and plan time for some fun with a friend.  If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your child.

P.S. While MASK Syndrome to date has been found to be most prevalent among Moms, many dads are susceptible to similar syndromes.  So, Dads, don’t feel left out, but take heed.

Lisa Barrett Mann, M.S.Ed., has a private practice in Overland Park, KS, focusing on social skills training and cognitive-behavioral interventions for children and teens with ASDs (www.AspergersInterventions.com).  She is also the mother of a 13-year-old with AS and the author of More Than Little Professors: Children with Asperger Syndrome: In Their Own Words.

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