My son has autism. Am I going to get divorced?

Statistics claim that 80% of parents with autistic children end up divorced. Are these stats true? And do they really matter anyway?

There is a statistic floating around in the autism community that 80% of couples with an autistic child will end up divorced. If you’re married (as I am) and have an autistic child (as I do), this can be a distressing thing to hear. The funny thing is that while that number gets bandied around, no one seems to be able to point to a credible study that proves it.

Regardless of whether the divorce rate is 80% or a more typical 30-40% for parents of autistic children, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to me. The thing about statistics is that they only really matter if you’re not involved. Numbers tend to obscure the faces of the people underneath them. It’s all very interesting to hear that there is only one fatal airline accident every 1.5 million flights, but no one really cares if they are on the airplane that gets struck by lightning.

So when I think about whether parents of autistic children divorce more often, I wonder about the families behind those percentages. I can’t believe that 80% of these couples divorce. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Today I read an article by Laura Shumaker, which was published on both SFGate.com and 5 Minutes for Special Needs. In it she questions this 80% figure and responds with some unscientific polling of her own. It is interesting reading.

I know that my son’s autism has been hard on my marriage. There is an imbalance in who takes care of the special needs part of our lives that sometimes leaves me resentful. Some days I am stressed because of calls from the school or a rough day on the autism front and I take it out on my husband. Money can be difficult too. There is always a need to pay for therapy, co-pays, evaluations, the occasional lawyer—and these are just the money issues that I personally have run up against. Because I am taking my son to therapy and working through homework struggles, I don’t clean as much as I should, something that is a legitimate complaint of my husband’s. 

But—and this is a huge but here—but I don’t think these problems would go away if all of my children were typical. I think that there would probably be an imbalance in something else that would leave one or both of us resentful. I think I would be stressed about another of my children and probably worried about paying for a typical kid’s activities. I don’t necessarily think the homework struggles would go away if no one in my family had autism—and I can guarantee that I probably still wouldn’t clean enough.

Fortunately for my husband and I, even though we both have some pretty serious faults when it comes to relating to a partner, we also share a sense of humor and a commitment to marriage and each other. We know that tough times will lead to good times and back to tough again. It is the ebb and flow of marriage, and we are lucky enough to have found well-suited partners in this tide.

Yes, there are stresses that come with parenting an autistic child. Plus, I have a high functioning child, so I can only imagine the stresses that are even greater for others. But I feel that it is not the child, but rather the partnership, the clashes in temperament, parenting style, and viewpoint that are responsible for these divorces. Sometimes a partnership just isn’t right. No child can create that situation.

I commented on Shumaker’s article in a half-joking manner. But within that comment is the truth of my marriage:

“Sure, having a kid with autism has strained my marriage, but so has having two typical kids and a dog. The cat litter box has probably done more damage to my marriage than all three kids combined.”

My kids (all of them) are challenging, as kids are wont to be. But of everything in my marriage, the thing my husband and I are most united about is our children—our love for them and our joy to have them, each as they are. No statistic about divorce and special needs children will ever change that.

Jean writes all about her family (and her husband) at Stimeyland. She runs an autism events calendar for Montgomery County, Maryland at AutMont.


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Jean Winegardner

When Jean had her first child in 2001, "autism" was about the scariest word she could think of. Six years later when her second child was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism, she was just happy to have a word to help him get the services he needed. Her autism journey has been full of tears, laughter, love and at least one attorney.

Jean blogs about her life with her autistic son, Jack, on her blog, Stimeyland. Her two neurotypical children, Sam and Quinn (one older, one younger than Jack), make frequent appearances there as well. Also at Stimeyland? Jean's quirky sense of humor.

She also runs AutMont, an events calendar listing autism-related events in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Raising a child with special needs is hard for so many reasons, but after living with Jack, Jean wouldn't trade him for anything in the world. Come along with Jean as she experiences the joys that come with parenting a special kid.

You can email Jean anytime at stimeyland at gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter, where, as "Stimey," she offers her world view in snippets of 140 characters or less.

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