As a recent study showed that the prevalence of autism continues to increase, the question of how a diagnosis can affect a family and a marriage becomes even more important. The unique challenges faced by parents of children with autism can’t be ignored. One study published by Hartley et al. showed that parents who had a child with autism had a significantly higher divorce rate than parents without a child with autism. 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.”
The importance of arriving at answer is critical because parents facing a diagnosis might read articles that have them believe they are already doomed to a failed marriage. Recent studies indicate that just isn’t the case and parents have reason to breath a little easier, divorce is not unavoidable.
A better way to view a diagnosis of autism is one of many stressors on a relationship. If a marriage is already strong then it’s quite possible the couple will grow closer as a result. If, on the other hand, a couple is already having difficulties in their marriage, autism is a big enough stressor that it can become the straw that breaks the camel’s back. For these couples autism becomes one of many reasons to call it quits.
One of the authors of this recent study surveyed divorced parents of children with autism. 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, an overwhelming 76% of the respondents said that autism was not the primary cause of their divorce. Although the majority did not believe autism was 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.” Thankfully, the least cited reason for how autism contributed to the divorce was “Blame for Diagnosis Put on One Parent.”
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.” 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.
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. Joining a local autism support group is one way to help build a support network.
The surveys show that couples do not get divorced simply because of an autism diagnosis, though for many couples the diagnosis is a contributing factor. 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.
If you find yourself facing an emotionally draining divorce, you need the help of an experienced South Carolina family law attorney to guide you through the tough process.
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