Does Autism Lead to More Divorces?

In the United States, 40 to 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, the American Psychological Association reports. Of those marriages that fail, we already know that the causes can be traced back to infidelity, financial problems, and deeper emotional problems.

Just ask any married couple, it takes work to create a long-lasting, loving marriage; you can’t simply get married and expect a marriage to survive on autopilot – it doesn’t work that way.

Even seemingly normal marriages have their share of ups and downs. Crazy schedules, blossoming careers, health and mental issues, family conflicts, blended families, money problems, and children – all add stress to the mix. When you have a child with autism, it takes the stress of a marriage to a whole other level.

For some parents, having a child with autism is like standing on an earthquake fault line; they never know when a quake will hit, and when the Earth will open up below their feet. Their life is crazy and unpredictable, and nothing stays the same.

With an autistic child, parents often have to plan everything. From a simple trip to the grocery store to get milk, to birthday parties, and family vacations – outings sometimes require a lot more thought and planning than they do for non-autistic children.

Are the Numbers Really True?

It’s been circulating that 80 to 90 percent of parents with autistic children get divorced, but are these numbers actually true? We’ve conducted our own research and have come up with conflicting data.

A study published in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, evaluated data from nearly 78,000 children from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, and it did not find any evidence to suggest that the parents of autistic children had an increased chance of divorce.

However, a 2010 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that parents with ASD children were nearly twice as likely to get divorced than couples without disabled children. The study revealed something interesting: the divorce rates in parents with disabled children did not increase until the children became teens or adults.

After closely evaluating the two above studies, Psychology Today had this to say, “Even if statistics conflict, neither study suggests that the divorce rate is anywhere close to 80 percent for parents of ASD kids.”

Caring for an Autistic Child is Stressful

Regardless of the statistics, one thing does not change – caring for an ASD child is difficult and it often places strain on marriages. Many parents will try to do everything they can to help their child. They’ll try alternative treatments, they’ll invest in specialists, or they’ll hire full-time help. Sometimes, all these efforts can lead to bankruptcy and foreclosure.

As parents of ASD children learn to cope with their situation, they can become stronger, or they can buckle under the stress. It all depends on the couple. Often, feelings of guilt, grief, and hopelessness are consuming – the main caregiving parent can feel like their life has been literally “swallowed up.” If the breadwinner is uninvolved, and there’s a lack of empathy and understanding, it can strain the marriage.

It’s About How Couples Handle Stress

Raising an autistic child can be very difficult; however, it’s not all doom and gloom. Many married couples not only make it, but their bonds are actually strengthened because of the autism. The fate of a couple with an ASD child has much to do with the couple themselves and their ability to stay strong under stress – but that’s the case with any stressful situation that impacts a marriage.

As divorce attorneys, we’ve represented clients whose marriages fell apart after the birth of an autistic child. It’s not uncommon for one parent to withdraw from the workforce to care for the disabled child round-the-clock. Meanwhile, the breadwinner spends long hours at the office to support the family, and the family’s high medical costs.

Suppose the mother stays home with the child all day. When her husband comes home from work, he criticizes her for not getting the child’s tantrums under control. He criticizes her for “giving in” whenever the child demands to drink out of a specific cup, or for allowing their child to stay up late at night, or for failing to potty-train the child, even though they’re five or six-years-of-age (potty-training is often an issue with autistic children).

The father may have had the best intentions, but he was gone so much that he had difficulty understanding how much work was involved in caring for his autistic child. Perhaps the father couldn’t deal with the problem so he concentrated heavily on his work, and stayed away from his crazy home as much as possible. The physical and emotional distance led to the downfall of the marriage.

Couples React Differently to Autism

If you have an autistic child and you know other couples with autistic children, you’ve probably observed that couples react differently to autism. When a child is diagnosed, spouses have different responses. When parents are forced to change their expectations of parenthood, sometimes stark differences arise. You may have experienced this in your own marriage.

Once couples receive the official diagnoses, their spouse can act completely different than they would have expected. In other words, a diagnosis can make or break couples. Often, it’s the father who struggles with denial, according to Christina Adams, author of A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism.

“A father is socialized to raise a child who’s going to grow up to be successful. When they find that there’s a possibility their child may not grow up in that mode, it hurts,” Adams told the Autism Support Network.

If you are a parent of a disabled child who is seeking a divorce in Los Angeles, we urge you to contact our firm for a free case evaluation. We understand what you’re going through and are here to help.