Are Parents of Children With Autism More Likely to Divorce?

When people get married, for better or for worse, they are often unprepared for the challenges that may arise. Most couples experience the usual conflicts over things like money or division of chores, but having a child with special needs can take these challenges to an entirely new level.

When a child has a disability like autism, many issues rise to the surface. Each parent will go through a unique grieving process. Some may go into denial, while others plow forward, obsessively researching therapies and miracle cures. It is common for couples to clash during this period, especially if their individual grieving processes are different.

Then come the practical questions. How are we going to pay for these therapies? Which partner is going to either quit their job or cut back hours to stay home and care for this child? What therapy should we try, and are we on the same page about this? Who is responsible for keeping track of therapy sessions, doctor appointments, medications, etc.?

Many children on the autism spectrum can also exhibit self-injurious or aggressive behaviors. Life can become very isolating for the parent who is the primary caregiver, especially if the child’s behaviors make it difficult to get out of the house and seek social interaction. All of these challenges can lead to depression, anxiety, and conflict between parents.

Are parents of children with autism more vulnerable to divorce? Not necessarily, according to a 2010 study conducted by Dr. Brian Freedman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, who found virtually no difference in divorce rates. Other studies indicate that there is a correlation, some claiming as high as 80%.

Can raising a child with autism lead to divorce? Kymberly Grosso, author of the blog Autism in Real Life, conducted a survey of 52 divorced parents raising a child with autism to explore this question. She found that 78% of her respondents divorced after their children were diagnosed, but 76% also stated that the diagnosis was not the primary cause of their divorce. However, 50% of respondents indicated that autism was a contributing factor. When asked how their child’s diagnosis was a factor in the divorce, the most cited reason was “Stress on Family Relationships,” followed by “General Stress” and “Issues with Acceptance of Diagnosis.”

Raising a child with autism is stressful, and while it is not necessarily the reason many couples divorce, it can magnify issues that were already present, leaving a marriage more vulnerable. Allison Ziering Walmark, blogger and parent of a child with autism, sums it up,

“While neither scientist nor mathematician, for parents who have children with ASD, the equation is positively Pythagorean Theorem-like: Greater financial/emotional burden + convoluted family dynamic = greater martial strain. Every marriage has strain; the addition of a child with special needs merely magnifies that strain.” She goes on to say, “Still, our children are the lights of our lives, and we wouldn’t change a thing.”