Why do people divorce when they have children with special needs? How do I divorce my spouse when we have an autistic child? How do I learn to parent an autistic child on my own? Dear friend, these were just some of the things I struggled with when I realized that my marriage was falling apart. This is my story, just one of many, when it comes to divorce with an autistic child.
Is the divorce rate higher for parents of autistic children?
I would be highly inclined to tell you, yes- it is.
Sweet B’s father and I were married for 12 years. As of 2016, we were legally separated and as of 2018, our divorce was finalized. At the time, neither one of us can really afford it, but we both know that our marriage is definitely over. I had moved on with my life and so had he. There were other factors leading to the meltdown of our marriage, but I would be lying if I said that B’s autism didn’t have anything to do with it.
Raising a child with autism is stressful, another post for another day, even when you do have a good support system in place.
But does parenting an autistic child really lead to divorce?
Autism and Divorce Rate
The statistics have fluctuated over the years, but some experts had predicted that the divorce rates among couples with a child with autism was 50%. I believe that the number has gone down, but it’s still rather high and I can’t say that I’m surprised.
Even with such a need for routine and consistency, maybe that’s why autism and divorce don’t always go hand in hand. For us, after we found out about her diagnosis, our marriage seemed to strengthen. We drew on each other for support, even when the stress levels were through the roof.
That was both a good thing and a bad thing.
I look back and I can say this, with confidence, that yes while your spouse or significant other should be a primary source of support; don’t let them be your only source of support. I should have sought out support groups or counseling during that time, but I didn’t. Hindsight being 20/20, that’s one thing that I wish I had done differently after we got the diagnosis for B.
In comparison to couples with children, but without autism, the divorce rate is higher among parents who have a child with autism. I believe that fully. Having a child with autism changes your life in ways that you could never imagine. I don’t say that to sound over dramatic, I say that because it’s true.
Autism and Divorce Custody
If at all possible, try to figure out a custody strategy before you go to court. While this doesn’t have to be a legally binding document (yet), having some sort of framework in place can go a long way. A standard custody agreement may suit your family just fine.
You’ll also need to think about what’s going to be best for your child. If your child needs more routine and structure, you may need to consider a different schedule for custody and visitation.
When both parents agree to work together for the benefit of the child, there isn’t any need for dealing with legal contracts and complex family law structures. Yet, this may not always be the case, as experts such as Freed Marcroft’s Fairfield divorce attorneys warn. If one of the parents is not willing to play by the tacit agreement, it may be worth considering clear custody documentation as part of your divorce proceedings.
Truth be told, you are likely to already know whether your former partner is ready to uphold their responsibility for the best interest of the child. Their behavior even before the relationship collapses should provide valuable clues!
Autism and Divorce: Our Story
I believe that having a child with any type of special need or disability, changes you in ways that you never thought possible. You will grow as a person and you will start questioning everything in your life. It’s magical and painful, all at the same time. Even when you become a parent, your priorities shift and change because it’s not all about you. You have a responsibility for another human being, and that within itself is scary. I don’t say this to marginalize parents of non-special needs kids, merely speaking from personal experience.
Being a parent is tough, regardless of the circumstances, and it’s not always easy.
Sometimes I think though, that having B was both a blessing and a curse. Now, before you judge, please listen. I love my daughter with all of my being and there isn’t anything that I wouldn’t do for her to ensure her safety and well being. She’s my daughter and I will always love her.
But, she’s also been somewhat of a delicate issue between myself and her father, even though we both did want to have children; or in my case, have another child. However, I can recall him not quite connecting with her after she was born. Or, no matter how much I would plead to go see her, it wasn’t an every day thing. Yes, I understood that he worked all day and that he was tired, but that was his daughter in the NICU too. A part of me resented that and I think that bitterness, now that I’m finally talking about it, contributed to the downward spiral that ultimately lead to the end of our marriage.
In my Road to Motherhood entry, I did relate that we were married after B was born. Initially, we were going to get married before her due date but B had other plans. Sometimes I would question if we got married for the right reasons, but there’s really nothing that I can do about that now. Still, I’m the type of person that takes those vows seriously- and until death do us part, meant what it meant. I took my vows to heart and I honestly thought that nothing could break that. I’m also a bit of a traditionalist in believing ‘get married once, stay married’.
But, since I’m writing an entry about autism and divorce, I surprised myself. Who knew. Life happens, things change, and we move on.
I can’t put all of the blame on B’s autism because we did have our fair share of problems.
Our personalities are different, our parenting views are different, our childhoods were very different… there were a lot of differences between the two of us and looking back, I suppose we just couldn’t overcome them all. I didn’t want to admit to that at first, because in my view, I was a failure and I was giving up. So I stayed and I fought for our marriage. That was both a good thing and a bad thing, I suppose. A good thing because I was willing to fight, and a bad thing because I was the only one fighting at the time.
B’s autism didn’t profoundly affect our marriage until we were both unemployed. I was already a stay at home mom and he left his job due to stress. With both of us, there was no lack of care for B, but it was still mostly on me. I didn’t mind that too much, but I would also be remiss to say if I didn’t become resentful for the lack of support. We were her parents, after all, so I would have expected to have had more help.
Still, I bit my tongue and didn’t bring it up- another mistake on my part and another issue that we had from the get go with a lack of clear and constant communication.
The stress and strain of B’s autism continued to impact and affect our marriage in many ways, though neither one of us were ever quick to acknowledge it.
And, as I said, there were other factors that contributed. Ultimately, it wasn’t just one thing, but several things coming together that lead to the end of our marriage. And that also affected B somewhat, though we tried not to argue in front of her. Sometimes, it just couldn’t be helped. Those were some very ugly times in the last few weeks before he moved out. But once we got past that, I think we were both better off.
I would be lying though, if I didn’t admit to harboring some resentment and bitterness. I’m still angry and have thoughts of rage. But I also realize that B needs her father, even if I don’t. She benefits more from having him in her life, even if there are days that the very thought of him makes me want to bludgeon him with a mallet. That being said, the co-parenting thing has been touchy.
Our communication still sucks, but we’re trying for B’s sake. And so far, I think we’re doing pretty okay.
How to Help Your Autistic Child Through Divorce
While these tips could apply to any child, when it comes to autistic children; we know that structure and routine are of utmost importance.
So what else can you do?
- If your child is able to understand, assure them that they are not at fault.
- From the beginning, create a schedule or routine that can be implemented at both homes
- Inform your child about the upcoming changes as often as possible
- Use a calendar to mark the days that your child will be with their father and with you
Tips for Recently Divorced Moms of Autistic Children
Establishing communication with your ex-spouse is so important. And yes, I realize, that this may be difficult at times. I struggled with it myself and there are still times that I wonder how I managed to make it through a conversation.
But, establishing this open line of communication will go a long way when it comes to co-parenting and moving forward. Having both parents on the same page and following the same systems, routines, and strategies makes a world of difference.
Remind yourself, as often as needed, that this is for the sake of your child. And that just because you don’t need your spouse anymore, doesn’t mean that your child doesn’t need them. While my ex-husband may not be right for me; he is still right for our daughter.
So does parenting an autistic child really contribute to higher divorce rates? I think it depends on the couple involved, the strength of their marriage, and the support that they’re receiving.