By Wendy Spillar

Wendy is a Parent CNA with NTSOC. She is also a fitness instructor. You can contact her at

We, as special needs parents, are an elite group of human beings. You may not think of yourself that way, but I want to challenge you to think of yourself way differently than you ever have before.

We start with a vision of what our life will be like when we grow up. We’re going to make a difference, we’re going to travel, do and earn more than our parents, have fun, have kids, and be super awesome parents. We get educated (or think we get educated), then something happens to stop us in our tracks. Special needs kid or kids. This was not “the plan.”

I don’t know how you may have reacted, but maybe you can relate to how I reacted. What’s my plan now? Why even bother shopping for myself, caring about what I look like when I can’t sleep? Life is over, no camping, vacations, going out in public (my daughter used to vomit 3-4 times a day and is still very loud at “inappropriate” times). I just kept trudging along, breathing in and out, taking care of kids, trying to get a few hours of sleep, and counting down the days until I got to rest eternally.

Sleep deprivation, bouts of severe depression, panic attacks, and a seemingly huge amount of stress that many parents of typical kids can’t understand left me in the fetal position on the floor more than once.

Sometimes spouses, extended family, close friends are there, sometimes not. But you know who’s always there? You are. You can bring yourself through. You can DECIDE not to be paralyzed from fear/despair/grief/overwhelm from obligations you didn’t knowingly sign up for. We are all probably part of a social media support group, and while they can definitely help, actual action toward feeling better comes from within. You’ve got to decide that you want to do more than just be a special needs caretaker. You can make this happen not just physically but mentally and many other ways through fitness.

Fitness is NOT just losing fat and gaining muscle. Fitness is physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological. It’s finding and using coping strategies to show up more powerfully for your children and yourself. To be able to enjoy the life that you have now.

Building physical fitness obviously helps prepare you to better transfer your non-mobile child and/or chase that escape artist that wanders in department stores or runs unknowingly into danger or protects yourself from tantrums. But being stronger helps also build confidence in every other aspect of living. You’ll start feeling better mentally (science has proven this), which helps you better see solutions to problems that seem insurmountable. This keeps building and contributes to attitude changes. You start walking with your shoulders back and head up instead of hunched over, avoiding people’s curious looks/stares.

I found fitness to be so incredibly helpful. My depression medication was reduced, and I have not had a panic attack in over two years. My mindset has changed. I now don’t worry about what people think when I bring my special kiddo out, my major concern now is where to change her diaper (she’s 15). I don’t depend on others for my happiness.

Life is not going to be how you planned it when you were starting on your own. But that does NOT mean you can’t be happy. We are all part of the human experience, and we can start looking at life as a beautiful gift that is never delivered quite as we expect it, but it’s still a gift. We can learn to live our lives to the fullest and best of our abilities, and fitness is a way to get there.