With three children under the age of 7, Reyna and Rick Walters understand controlled chaos. But a typical day in the Walters' home doesn't just include toddler tantrums, sibling squabbles and endless messes. The Walters stick to a well-organized and meticulously executed plan amid a reality that changes, sometimes as soon as it appears to be working.
Two of the children, 6-year-old Ryan and 3-year-old Hunter, were diagnosed with autism. Ryan has Pervasive Developmental Disorder in addition to myriad other issues, including ADHD and OCD. Hunter has classic autism.
Both boys are developmentally delayed and struggle with communication. In fact, Hunter is completely nonverbal.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, defined by the presence of social deficits, communication problems and repetitive or restrictive behaviors. No two children on the spectrum are affected the same way. It also is the fastest growing developmental disability in children, affecting as many at 1 in 86 with 1 in 54 of those being boys.
Raising a child with autism poses challenges as parents try and navigate the often-misunderstood multitude of behaviors and physical obstacles children on the spectrum face. Raising two, as in the case of the Walters, can be particularly overwhelming.
They also have a baby, one-year-old Aryah, who, while neurotypical, requires attention and supervision.
"The hardest part," said Reyna, "is that we do it alone."
Rick works full-time to provide for the family. So much of the daily caretaking falls on Reyna, who receives little or no support from family.
"It's a lot to take on," she said.
But Reyna credits her faith for keeping her focused.
"I fully believe my faith has gotten me and gets me through every day," she said. "If God brought it to you, he'll get you through it."
When Tamatha Chainey hugged her husband, Ernest, before his first deployment to Iraq in 2006, she had no idea how her family would be traumatized six years later when he returned to civilian life. After three tours, Ernest was wounded, not only physically but emotionally, from his ordeal. He returned to their Texas home last year with serious depression, mood swings and a diagnosis of PTSD.
Tamatha's three children, Lauren, Elizabeth and Ernest Jr., had spotty memories of their father, who had been gone long enough for them to forget what life was like with a dad at home. While overjoyed upon his return to their lives full time, the adjustments were huge.
But Tamatha's adjustment was perhaps the most difficult. Although she knew logically why her husband was struggling, her loyalties were torn between protecting her children and protecting him from himself.
"Sometimes I feel lost with his moods or anger," she said. "It is not easy dealing with them." The family has learned to find creative ways of controlling the anxiety, by doing things together and keeping the lines of communication open.
Tamatha also encourages Earnest to pursue activities that relax him, like fishing, when tensions are high. He also began equine therapy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 65 million Americans provide care to loved ones, whether that includes an ill partner or spouse, a disabled child or an aging relative. And while each caregiver described above acknowledged the reward they received from protecting and advocating for the needs of their loved ones, each would also be quick to admit the stress can sometimes be overwhelming.
Caregiver stress is caused by the emotional and physical strain that comes from taking care of the needs of others who cannot take care of themselves. Oftentimes, caregivers may neglect their own health while caring for another which can lead to even bigger problems.
Signs of stress include:
Feeling overwhelmed and irritable
Sleeping either too much or too little
Gaining or losing weight
Losing interest in activities once enjoyed
A huge obstacle for Reyna Walters, for instance, is the controlling nature that seems to come with caring for children who are struggling with disadvantages. She admitted that at times she is over-controlling because she fears the outcome of not doing everything right for her children.
The Mayo Clinic suggested that caregivers learn how to ask for and accept help.
"The emotional and physical demands involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person," according to the website.
Too much stress can lead to health concerns like heart disease and diabetes. It is important then to take caregiver stress seriously.
Financial issues are often part of the equation.
The Walters struggle to pay for the extensive therapies both boys need to help them function in educational situations.
The Chaineys struggled to make ends meet on a fraction of Ernest's former salary. His PTSD has been a real obstacle in obtaining adequate work to support a family of five. Tamatha is working on her Bachelor's degree in child therapy and is currently pursuing employment in education. The Chaineys are also working with a local breeder to obtain an assisted service canine to help Ernest with his therapy and perhaps branch out into a mobile canine business for other war heroes who suffer from PTSD.
Tolerance and awareness are also big issues for both families. While each deals with different obstacles, the commonality of appearing "different" is a burden both struggle with on a daily basis.
"We need to remember to show compassion and patience," Tamantha said. "We need to show respect and not make fun of or be afraid of people who are different."