A study presented in 2010 by Dr. Brian Freedman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute found there was no increase in divorce rates for parents who have a child with autism. 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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.