Do couples with autistic kids get divorced more frequently than other couples? Shockingly high divorce rates are quoted frequently, for example, Jenny McCarthy on Oprah, where she said it’s 90%, or Dr Colleen Allen, of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, who is quoted online as saying it’s 86%. Even John McCain, in his 2008 statement on autism for the ASA’s rally stated that “divorce rates of parents of children with autism are well above the national averages.” (Autism Advocate, 3rd Edition, 2008, Vol 52, p. 58.) Unfortunately, the data behind these numbers never seems to be included, so it’s hard to know if they are valid.
What is well documented and readily available is Easter Seals’ Living with Autism study. Easter Seals, with Mass Mutual Financial Group, and the Autism Society of America, conducted an interactive Harris poll. They interviewed US residents with children 30 or younger, where the child has either an Autism Spectrum Disorder or no special needs diagnosis at all. A total of 1652 parents of children with autism were polled, and there was a control group of 917 parents who didn’t have children with special needs. Many issues were studied, including detailed listing of parents concerns, such as their adult children’s quality of life and ability to live independently. It’s an online poll, so of course there are questions about biases, such as which families chose to participate in the study. The study focuses heavily on looking at financial planning questions, not surprising regarding the sponsorship. Many of the findings aren’t exactly shocking, such as the fact that parents of the special needs children were highly concerned with their child’s independence and quality of life, and that they struggled financially and had concerns about their children's education.
But, there was one section of the report that looked at divorce statistics. The report states, “Families living with autism are significantly less likely to be divorced than families with children without special needs. Among those parents with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder and who have been divorced, only one third say their divorce had anything to do with managing the special needs of their children.” (p. 39) And the rate? 30% for families with autistic children, 39% for the control group without special needs.
There’s also some information on these divorced families with children on the autism spectrum. The study found that in about half of the divorced families, one parent had sole custody of the child, and 71% of the time the child lived with the parent full time. Certainly, this can be a stress on the single parent, especially when coupled with the fact that over half of families with ASD reported having little or no support from their extended family.
Interested? You can download a copy of your own at the Easter Seals website.
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.