The Autism Blog

Divorce, Autism and Single Parenting

October 25, 2012

Divorce. Autism. Single Parenting.

These are three things we don’t ever think will happen to us when we’re newly married – or new parents – or newly diagnosed.

Having a child with autism certainly does not mean that your marriage won’t last yet it’s obvious that autism brings many additional stressors to a marriage. And like parents of typically-developing kids, sometimes our marriages do end in divorce.

Single parenting is a tough job. For parents of kids with autism, flying solo can feel like piloting a single-engine plane in turbulent skies.

I couldn’t find any research on single parenting a child with autism, but I did run across blogs and perspective pieces on the subject. To get some insight into the unique aspects of being a single mom or dad, we did an informal survey of local single parents. Some identified themselves as single parents whose ex shares in child-rearing while others identified as single without any involvement from their ex. Here’s what they had to say.

Questions and Answers

How long have you been a single parent?

Parent Responses: Ranged from six to ten years

What is the most difficult thing about single parenting? 

Parent Responses:

  • Exhaustion from doing everything by myself
  • Maintaining a full time job
  • Coordinating and paying for therapies
  • Financial stress
  • Judgment from others about my child’s behavior
  • Losing friends and family
  • Feeling so isolated
  • People don’t “get it”
  • People tell me to “take care of myself” but I have no one to take my place so I can
  • Stares and unkind words when in public
  • Can’t afford or find childcare for my child so it’s just me all the time
  • Can’t work due my child’s needs so I am in poverty
  • Super-human amount of work involved in every aspect of my child’s care
  • Hardest thing is to feel I’m not failing either of my children because I never feel I’m doing enough or everything I should be
  • Need for constant supervision and challenging behaviors is very isolating and exhausting
  • Can’t do the simplest of things (going to the bathroom, taking a shower, answering the phone) because my child might elope, get on a bus, stuff himself with food and then throw up – these things have happened
  • Some of my married friends are envious of my “time off” when their father has our kids. When I have them though, it is full-on, no buffer, no break, no back-up.

Where do you find support? 

Parent Responses:

  • ALLY – Autism, Living Life & You support group
  • Single friends who don’t have children
  • Friends who “get it” and support me, accept me
  • Close family
  • I have to compartmentalize to create time for myself – which was impossible for many years. I used to hate when people would tell me to “be sure you make time for yourself”.
  • Have found wrap services and support groups unhelpful
  • My child’s aggressive behavior prevents me from using respite
  • Local online groups
  • Other moms of kids with autism who understand when it takes me a week to reply to an email or need to cancel at the last minute
  • I am deliberate about carving out time to do things that make me feel good

What have you learned/gained from single parenting? 

Parent Responses:

  • More aware of using positive parenting – finding ways to connect vs. angry/punitive reactions
  • I’m more mindful of daily interactions and successes
  • More aware of dollars well saved and spent on therapies and investing in my child’s future
  • That I have strength and courage I didn’t know I had
  • That it isn’t the end of the world even if some days it feels like it
  • That it’s okay to ask for help
  • To thank people for their knowledge and support
  • That it’s good for me to pay it forward with others
  • I have developed excellent advocacy skills
  • That I can’t do everything myself!
  • To let go of lots of things that would have seemed important to me before
  • To prioritize
  • To get through a day on very little sleep – over and over again
  • That lots of what I think I ought to do for my children turns out to not be crucial. Family dinners went out the window a long time ago!
  • I’ve gotten to know some amazing people, other parents who are making it work (or at least surviving) with a sense of humor and hope intact. I never stop seeing this as a miracle, honestly, because I know how close to the edge we all run, all the time.
  • Some skills I didn’t know I had –in terms of supporting others emotionally through hard times or communicating about this life when I’ve had the opportunity – to groups of students going into a helping profession
  • I appreciate the unplanned, unpredictable moments of quiet that emerge in the chaos – when folding clothes or cooking
  • I’ve learned to roll with the punches and live in the moment
  • The positives and not so positives for my other child

What tips might you offer to new single parents? 

Parent Responses:

  • Sleep when you can, where you can
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff –so much is small stuff
  • It’s okay to buy disposable so you don’t have to do dishes
  • Don’t be afraid to seek counseling
  • Don’t speak ill of your ex –kids hear everything!
  • Our kids sometimes feed off our emotions whether they can articulate it or not – my child feels my pain and my joy
  • Read! Knowledge can be empowering
  • Read! A good novel can be a much-needed escape
  • Remind yourself that you are not a bad parent and that there are reasons your child is struggling. In fact, you go above and beyond!
  • The diagnosis can be scary but it also helps to understand why your child does what he does
  • Reach out to at least one support group or other parent of a child with autism – those conversations will keep you sane
  • Learn about IEPs from Wrightslaw
  • Sign up for DDD even if you hear there are no paid services
  • Get help in navigating health insurance when it comes to therapies
  • Start by realizing autism is a forever thing and you have to pace yourself. There is no urgency
  • Redo your To Do List to cover the absolute basics and include finding an hour to yourself – not doing laundry or dishes or making appointments for your child
  • Get rid of anyone in your life who causes additional stress. Real friends are the ones who “get it” and you don’t have to explain to them
  • Don’t volunteer for anything unless you know it will actually feed you in a significant way
  • Focus on what your child does well
  • Don’t force friendships or a lifestyle that isn’t consistent with autism
  • Focus on what you can realistically handle

Is there anything else you want us to know about single parenting? 

Parent Responses:

  • It’s okay to date and do things for yourself. In fact, you’ll be a better parent if you do
  • Autism is all consuming, but you can learn to weave times of pleasure in with all the work
  • Make time for your other children. Sibshops at Seattle Children’s are great!

We’d like to thank our parents who contributed their thoughts and feelings to this blog.