Most parents of children with autism are acutely aware of the issues that come with the diagnosis and particularly, how stress affects their marriage. So what does the research say about autism and divorce? One study published by Hartley etal. showed that parents who had a child with autism had a higher divorce rate than parents without a child with autism. However, a more recent study presented in 2010 by Dr. Brian Freedman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute found there was no increase in divorce rates. 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?
As a parent of a child with autism, who was divorced, I believe that a diagnosis of autism is similar to any other great life stressor. However, in addition to stress, the autism diagnosis frequently is a life changing event for the parents of the child as well as the entire family unit. Therefore, if a marriage is strong, the couple may weather the storm over time and possibly come out stronger. But for couples who are already having difficulties in their marriage, autism is a stressor that can become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. And for those couples, autism becomes yet another reason to divorce.
In an effort to examine parent perceptions of divorce and autism, I conducted a survey of other divorced parents who have a child with autism. Do parents believe that autism was the primary reason for their divorce? Specifically, how does the diagnosis of autism contribute as a reason for divorce?
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.