How to Deal with Divorce When You Have a Child on the Spectrum

There is an autism myth that has been floating around for years now: up to 80 percent of couples with an autistic child end up divorced. In reality, divorce rates are similar for parents of autistic and neurotypical kids, with some statistics indicating that the rate might be slightly higher for autism parents.

Though this pervasive myth is just that—a myth—divorce is still an undeniable reality for a number of parents. The splitting of a marriage is difficult enough on its own but can be especially complicated and trying when a child is involved in the equation, especially one who is on the spectrum, as those with autism inherently struggle with change. Here are some tips for getting through this difficult time.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Andrey Popov
Photo: Adobe Stock/Andrey Popov

9. Break the News Together

The announcement of a divorce is big news and is best done when both of you are present. Decide what you’re going to say beforehand, taking into account your child’s age, developmental level, and degree of understanding. You should answer any questions your child may have, but there is no need to go into all the details; they don’t need the whole story as to why things didn’t work out between you and your spouse.

8. Reassure Your Child

Getting the news about a divorce may raise a great deal of questions and fears in the mind of a child. They may worry that they did something to cause your split and wonder what life will look like now that their parents will no longer be together. As often as needed, reassure your child—that the divorce is not their fault, that you love them, that both of you will still be involved in their life, etc. Remind them that, though things may change, your love and care for them will not.

7. Let Them/Help Them Express Their Feelings

Your child may feel a whole host of things like sadness, anger, resentment, and anxiety. Since those on the spectrum may have trouble expressing their emotions, help them to do so. Assure them that they can be totally honest with you and reassure them that any feelings they have are okay and valid.

6. Keep Your Kid Out of It

Photo: Adobe Stock/WavebreakmediaMicro
Photo: Adobe Stock/WavebreakmediaMicro

If you are getting divorced, you are undoubtedly also experiencing a wide range of emotions. But no matter what you’re going through or what happened to cause your split, it is never okay to drag your child into the middle of your conflict. Keep fights, disagreements, and all other negativity between the two of you. Do not air your grievances about your spouse to your child, as this may make them feel like they need to “pick a side.” Conduct any arguments in private. And never, ever turn your child into a pawn or leverage to control your ex. Instead, be nice to your ex and keep a positive attitude, even when it’s hard. Doing this will not only model good behavior for your child, but it will also help this difficult time run smoother for everyone.

5. Work Out Custody Issues

Alright, this is where it gets complicated and depends greatly on your situation. To state the obvious, the most important thing to consider here is your child’s wellbeing. In the case of an autistic child, keeping things as consistent, routine, and transition-less as possible is preferable. Take into consideration each of your individual work schedules, therapy schedules, and other factors that may play a role in which parent your child stays with and when.

Do your best to work out custody yourselves, as bringing in a formal mediator or going to court could be very costly and may not always lead to the best outcomes for your child. But if you can’t work it out, then you can’t work it out, and you may need help from a third party.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Andrey Popov
Photo: Adobe Stock/Andrey Popov

4. Prepare Your Child for the Change

Change tends to be very difficult for children on the spectrum, but it can be made easier with adequate preparation. Let your child know the custody schedule that has been set in place, creating visual schedules as needed to help explain things. It can also be helpful to construct a social story or narrative about grief or the upcoming changes.

3. Routine, Routine, Routine

The stability and reassurance of routine and schedule is especially important at this point. Try to maintain old routines, activities, and expectations as best as possible.

2. Work Out Parenting Disagreements

You and your spouse may no longer be married, but you are obviously still parents and thus must continue to work together in the best interests of your child. Unless you’re dealing with an extreme case that involves something like abuse, neglect, or incapacity, it is likely that you and your ex will have joint legal custody of your child, meaning that you both have equal say in making medical, educational, and other assorted decisions on your child’s behalf. As such, you must do your best to work together on this and communicate as effectively as possible. Easier said than done, for sure, but do your best with your child’s wellbeing at the forefront of your mind. If you absolutely cannot agree, you may need to take the issue to family counseling or even to court.

1. Take Care of Yourself

Photo: Adobe Stock/Africa Studio
Photo: Adobe Stock/Africa Studio

Without a doubt, divorce is often very, very hard on children, and great care needs to be taken to ensure this difficult time runs as smoothly as possible. It is vital to provide a sense of support and stability, as it may feel like everything is falling apart.

But don’t forget about your needs during this time, too. Do your best to get enough food, sleep, water, and exercise. Journal about your feelings or confide in a friend or therapist if you need to vent. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with daily tasks and chores, if needed. Take time to relax and do things that you enjoy.

If emotional struggles do not get better for you and/or your child, or if they get even worse, you and/or your child may be struggling with depression. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help for this. If your/your child’s thoughts turn suicidal, immediately do one of these three things:

  • Call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255
  • Online chat at I’m Alive
  • Text 741-741 if you live in the United States
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