The Autism Blog

Marriage and Autism

October 18, 2012

For a dozen years I’ve heard the statistic that 80% of parents of children with autism divorce and for a dozen years I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find the purported study. I did, however, locate studies whose findings provide evidence that the 80% divorce rate is an urban legend.

Kennedy Krieger study

  • Brian Freedman, clinical director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) at Kennedy Krieger Institute used data from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health  of more than 70, 000 children age 3 through seventeen.
  • Debunked the 80% myth: 64% of parents of kids with autism remained married compared to 65% for those who did not have a child with autism. This means that the divorce rate was virtually the same, about 35% not an exorbitant 80%.

University of WI study

  • Slightly different results perhaps due to the different age groups studied. This one looked at children age 14-57 (many were in their 30s and 40s) based on the idea that parents are more likely to divorce when kids are young. This was a longitudinal study of parents of 406 people with autism and a similar number of parents with typically-developing children.
  • Up until age 8, both groups had the same rate of divorce, but from age 14-57, the parents of kids with autism had a higher rate of divorce compared to the group with typically-developing children. However, at 23%, this is much lower than the 80% bandied about. The group of parents with children without autism had a rate of 14%.

We conducted an informal survey of parents who have a child (or children) with autism, here’s what they said in response to our questions about autism and marriage.

How long have you been married?

Parent responses: ranged from 7 to 23 years

What is most stressful for you as a couple in parenting a child with autism? 

Parent responses:

  • Having different opinions on how to handle difficult behavior.
  • Difficulty working as a team when emotions are running high all the time.
  • No such thing as “date night”
  • Lack of physical connection because we’re exhausted by the end of the day.
  • Keeping it all going at once (kids, house, work)
  • Fighting over stupid things like dishes/laundry/trash
  • Not knowing how to handle difficult situation with our child.
  • In our child’s younger years, we fought over care, treatment, and the effects of autism on our other child. At one point, I moved out. I didn’t mind the disagreement as much as the roadblocks. I insisted my husband go to counseling. He did and we stuck it out together. Today we are an extremely happy, committed couple.

What do you do to maintain your marriage in light of the stressors and conflicting demands for time and energy in parenting a child with autism? 

Parent responses:

  • Making time almost every night to talk about each other’s day.
  • Grandparents who offer to watch our child overnight every few weeks so we can get a break.
  • Respect. Realistic expectations. Honor. Promise to our wedding vows.
  • Talking about how we feel – checking in with each other.
  • Laughing
  • Agree to disagree
  • Counseling

What positives have you gained in your marriage from having a child with autism? 

Parent responses:

  • We have a strong bond and acknowledge we wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else.
  • Many things learned over time: patience, open-mindedness, picking your battles, flexibility
  • Special parents are given Special kids!
  • The struggles make us feel as if we are stronger than we saw ourselves previously.
  • Patience!
  • We realize we are stronger together than apart.
  • I’m not sure we could have learned the coping/compromise skills without this type of stress so it’s possible autism has made us better as individuals and stronger as a couple.

If you were asked for a few tips for couples new to an autism diagnosis for maintaining a strong marriage, what would they be? 

Parent responses:

  • Keep the lines of communication open.
  • Maintain a “safe” environment where each can speak free of judgment.
  • Fight fair.
  • Join a support group you can both go to together.
  • It’s ok to be “typical”, but at some point you need to set yourselves apart from the mainstream.
  • Having a child with autism is going to change what you do for fun, what you do for work, how you interact with family, friends, acquaintances and the general population.
  • Know what you stand up for is precious!
  • Throw out all your preconceived notions about what could have been and live every day for that day and that day alone.
  • Let your partner carry your burden when you are weak and when he is weak, you carry his!
  • It is a two-way street that isn’t paved due to funding cuts!
  • Wag more. Bark less.
  • Get help through therapy for your child and counseling for yourselves. You can’t do it alone.
  • Agree to disagree.
  • Go to counseling.
  • Schedule “us time”. You have to do this. You can’t expect the couple relationship to survive if all the energy goes to the child or children.

What else would you like us to know about marriage and parenting a child with autism? 

Parent responses:

  • I am incredibly blessed with all things that touch my life. Why I don’t know. But I thank God for everything, yes, even the painful stuff. I believe that you get what you give. So I always try to be good to others.
  • Our counselor taught us that our feelings don’t have to ruin our relationship.
  • Help your spouse to identify his feelings and try and understand where he is coming from.
  • Do not keep score. You will both feel under-appreciated and like you are each doing “more” or doing it “better” or doing it “right”, but in the end, you are doing exactly as much as you can and that is all that really matters.

In summary, there is no dispute that the many challenges that autism brings causes additional stress for parents but getting an autism diagnosis does not in any way predict the end of one’s marriage. Can you imagine if your child just received a diagnosis and at the same time you heard that there is an 80% chance your marriage will end? At a time when couples need each other the most and need hope to inspire them to move forward, this is the last message they need to hear.

As many of our survey respondents pointed out, keeping your marriage strong is not easy. Respecting and accepting each other’s differences, asking for help, getting counseling for yourselves and/or the entire family can lighten the load.