Most parents of children with autism are acutely aware of the issues that comes with the diagnosis and particularly, how stress affects their marriage. So what does the research say about autism and divorce? One study published by Hartley et al. showed that parents who had a child with autism had a higher divorce rate than parents without a child with autism (1). However, a more recent study presented in 2010 by Dr. Brian Freedman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute found there was no increase in divorce rates. According to their research, "64% of children with autism lived with married or adoptive parents compared to a rate of 65% for children with no autism diagnosis" (2).
The subject of divorce and autism is important in that parents of a newly diagnosed child may read an article about higher divorce rates and assume that their marriage is automatically at risk for divorce. Also, if a couple already has a strained marriage prior to the diagnosis, they may think that divorce is unavoidable. While there are strong emotions resulting from a diagnosis and there can be significant stress involved with raising a child with autism, do parents who subsequently get divorced primarily divorce because of the autism?
After the Diagnosis...Is Divorce Inevitable?
As a parent of a child with autism, who was divorced, I believe that a diagnosis of autism is similar to any other great life stressor. However, in addition to stress, the autism diagnosis frequently is a life changing event for the parents of the child as well as the entire family unit. Therefore, if a marriage is strong, the couple may weather the storm over time and possibly come out stronger. But for couples who are already having difficulties in their marriage, autism is a stressor that can become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. And for those couples, autism becomes yet another reason to divorce.
In an effort to examine parent perceptions of divorce and autism, I conducted a survey of other divorced parents who have a child with autism. Do parents believe that autism was the primary reason for their divorce? Specifically, how does the diagnosis of autism contribute as a reason for divorce?
What Do Parents Say?
Fifty-two divorced parents who have a child with autism responded to a survey regarding their perceptions of divorce and autism. While 78% of respondents said they divorced after their child was diagnosed, and overwhelmingly 76% of the respondents said that autism was not the primary cause of their divorce. Although the majority of respondents did not consider autism a main cause of divorce, 50% did consider autism to be a contributing factor for the divorce.
When parents were asked how their child's diagnosis of autism contributed as a reason for divorce, the most cited reason was "Stress on Family Relationships" followed by "General Stress" and "Issues with Acceptance of Diagnosis". The least least cited reason for how autism contributed to the divorce was "Blame for Diagnosis Put on One Parent".
As far as perceived outcomes, only 10% of parents responded that they felt as though their divorce would have a negative effect on the long term outcome of their child's diagnosis. In fact, 34% felt as though divorce would have a positive effect on their child. The results show that for at least some people, divorce is not necessarily perceived as having a negative impact on a child's outcome.
Speaking as a divorced parent, I suspect that the perception that "divorce may have a positive outcome on the child" may be related to the divorce having a positive outcome for the parent. If parents are happy, then perhaps parents may be better able to focus on strategies and interventions to help their child.
Lessons from Divorced Parents
While there are several limitations to this survey (3), the results tell us that there is much to be learned from people who are divorced and have a child with autism. So whether a new study comes out that says divorce rates are higher in autism families or are no different in autism families, there are feelings and reasons behind the numbers.
The diagnosis causes stress in many different ways that are not always obvious, and the stress can be significant. According to Selzer et al., "some mothers suffer from acute and chronic stress that can often take a toll similar to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome" (4) (5). In addition, the diagnosis often changes entire family dynamics not just the marriage. It also can change relationships with friends, extended family and coworkers. It can take months, sometimes years to come to acceptance and also to adapt to the new level of stress that often accompanies the diagnosis.
Helping Parents of Newly Diagnosed Children
If we know that the stress of a diagnosis can contribute to divorce, perhaps we can help parents to alleviate stress and/or facilitate the strengthening of their marriage. Like with many things, people can't change what they don't acknowledge. If new parents are aware of how stress has affected other parents and in what ways, they may be able to anticipate and lessen the effects of the stress.
Perhaps autism organizations should reach out to new parents with programs designed to help couples support the foundation of their marriages and address stress management strategies. When making the diagnosis, doctors should advise parents on the best ways to alleviate stress and how to make contacts within the autism community. One of the best pieces of advice given to me from my son's diagnosing physician was to join a local autism support group. It wasn't until I actually joined the group did I really start to appreciate what an invaluable resource it was.
Talking with other parents who also have children on the spectrum helps parents to cope and express stress they are experiencing. Because local support groups allow parents to make contact with other parents in the area, they are often one of the best places to get recommendations about local services and schools. Support groups also offer parents different perspectives and solutions to common problems (6). I would also recommend considering national listservs and support groups so parents can find out what kinds of interventions are happening outside their local area. Autism services often greatly vary from state to state.
A Thriving Marriage
Researchers, doctors and those interested in helping families need to listen to parents about how divorce happens and why it is happening in the autism community. The results of this survey support the idea that couples do not get divorced solely because of an autism diagnosis. But for many divorced parents, the diagnosis of autism did indeed contribute as a reason for divorce. Raising a child with autism has the potential to add tension to what could already be a troubled marriage. This may account for why up to 78% of the respondents reported they got divorced after their child was diagnosed.
Overall, the parent responses were interesting and something to think about when researchers look at autism and divorce. The diagnosis alone does not mean a marriage will fail, but stress was a factor for many of the respondents. Taking steps to alleviate the stress is key and if addressed may give marriages a better chance of succeeding.
In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find, and continue to find, grounds for marriage. ~Robert Anderson,Solitaire & Double Solitaire
1 Hartley, S. L., Barker, E. T., Seltzer, M. M., Floyd, F., Greenberg, J., Orsmond, G., et al. (2010). The relative risk and timing of divorce in families of children with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(4), 449-457.
2 B. H. Freedman*1, L. Kalb1, B. Zablotsky2 and E. Stuart3, Relationship Status Among Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Population-Based Study, 2010 International Meeting for Autism Research.
3 Survey Limitations: There are several limitations of this survey. First, the survey sample is relatively small (n=52). In addition, survey participants were allowed to opt out of answering specific questions. Secondly, even though participants were asked only to participate if they were divorced, there was no verification of the statements or their status. Third, the survey is asking about "perceptions" which is subjective and can also change depending on how a person feels at the time. Link to Full Survey Questions and Answers: www.AutismInRealLife.com
4 M. M. Seltzer, J. S. Greenberg, J. Hong, L. E. Smith, D. M. Almeida, et al. (2010). Maternal Cortisol Levels and Behavior Problems in Adolescents and Adults with ASD, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40(4), 457-469.
5 Diament M., Autism Moms Have Stress Similar To Combat Soldiers, November 10, 2009, Disability Scoop. http://www.disabilityscoop.com/2009/11/10/autism-moms-stress/6121/
6 Coulter D., The Asperger Diagnosis and Support Groups, February 21, 2011.