In past posts, I have shared The Emotional Pitfalls of Autism and The Secret Lives in the World of Autism as well as other aspects of the depths of hardship that families with autism often face. Due to those hardships many families find themselves in situations they never imagined they would.
When people in love get married, part of their vows quote “For Better or Worse”, although for many worse means an occasional sickness, financial difficulties, or the 7 year itch, it did not include a child with special needs. When a child has a disability like autism, many unexpected circumstances can often arise.
When a family receives a diagnosis of a disability in their child, parents often go through a personal grieving process. Some parents experience denial, while others may become depressed, overwhelmed, or become obsessive in researching the causes, the why’s, the fixes, the therapies and/or the cures. During this period of time, many couples find themselves handling the process individually instead of as a unit. Conflict will often arise within the family unit due to the different ways each parent grieves.
Once the initial shock wears off, you eventually have to deal with the circumstances you have been given. The practical side of things…. Answering questions like who is going to take care of our child while we work and how are we going to pay for therapy and other needed services. Many children who receive a diagnosis of autism exhibit self-injurious and aggressive behaviors which makes it extremely difficult to maintain out of the home childcare. So the question always lingers, which parent is going to quit their job, or reduce their hours to stay at home and care for the child.
During this emotional and life changing time, things can often become very chaotic for the family. Although they may have more contact with people than ever before due to the doctors appointments and therapies the primary caregiver can become increasingly isolated. A child on the spectrum behavior often makes it difficult to continue social escapades and outings. Because of the stress, anxiety, and depression that can come with the increase in responsibility, lack of social interaction, and constant disheveled within the home the conflict between parents often continues to occur.
Do these continual conflicts make parents of children with autism more vulnerable to marital problems which ultimately lead to divorce? A study conducted by Doherty (2008) found that divorce rates among parents of children with autism are as high as 80%. When asked, parents often cited the following reasons as contributing factors in their divorce.
- extreme amounts of stress on the family
- uncertainty of the diagnosis and its long-term prognosis
- lack of acceptance by one parent of the diagnosis
- stress from the characteristics of autism
- conflict over excessive behaviors
- the lack of understanding and acceptance by society
Raising a child on the spectrum is stressful, and while it is not necessarily the reason couples divorce, it can magnify issues that were already present, leaving a marriage more vulnerable. Every marriage has strain; the addition of a child with special needs merely magnifies that strain.
There is no way a mother or a father can prepare themselves for an Autism diagnosis…. You are told, “Your child has AUTISM, there is no cure – it is a lifelong disability, it is likely they will never speak, they will possibly have difficulty learning, forming relationships, and living on their own.” This in itself is life changing.
At that time, it is common for the mother, regardless of her other children, family duties, profession, or obligations to find herself consumed with all things autism. She will find herself surfing every website, reading every book, and researching every study, in hopes of finding that one thing that will make a difference!!!
The father on the other hand, often buries himself in work, lives in denial of the diagnosis or falls prey to addiction in efforts to drive away the emotional toll the diagnosis has taken on his family. Husbands often fear having a lack of control and such a diagnosis takes this fear and makes it a realization. These differences in coping can drive the couple more and more apart.
As the mother of a teen with autism, I am very aware that the divorce rate for parents of adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum is considerably higher than that for parents of adolescents and adults without a disability. According to a 2011 study completed by the National Institute of Health, it is almost double. This statistic saddens me, but it also makes me more determined to make certain my family doesn’t fall prey. Does it require more effort than other families, probably so. But is it worth it? Most definitely.
What can you do to help? I was so hoping you would ask… If you are financially wealthy, I would love for you to send my family and I on an extended vacation but I know that really isn’t possible. Or maybe you could build me a new sensory and autism friendly (safe) house? But yea, it would probably cause me more stress…
So what can you do that will really help? You can pray… You can pray for strength, wisdom, and endurance. Pray God will guard our hearts and protect our marriages You can pray for my children, not only the one with autism, but more specifically the two that don’t. Life can sometimes be difficult when you have a sibling with a disability.
The autism epidemic is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Although you may not be directly affected at this time, according to statistics you will be. The statistics continue to climb with each new year. As a society, we must learn to not only be aware and not only accept, but to EMBRACE those who are different. It is what you would want for your child and family? Right?