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The Effects of a Child’s Autism Diagnosis on Married Couples

Despite speculation about an 80% divorce rate among couples with children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), very little research has actually addressed the issue of separation among this population. It has been suggested that, as a result overwhelming emotional and financial burdens on families with an autism diagnosis, many relationships become significantly stressed. While previous literature does suggest greater overall difficulty among parents of children with ASD, there has been very little empirical research aimed to determine if biological parents of children with ASD are truly at an increased risk for separation.

Given that high stress is often associated with marriage termination, it might be expected that parents of children with ASD frequently separate and/or divorce. On the other hand, family systems theory actually suggests that families of children with autism might be more inclined to stay together. There is a common phenomenon where families maintain their relationships in the face of adversity because it is safer to live together than to face the unknown changes that come with separation. Families might remain together to ensure that they can provide financially for their child’s multitude of needs. ABA therapy for a child with autism costs $60,000 a year for a child with mild autism. As a result, minimal differences in divorce rates might actually be present among parents of children with ASD when compared with the general population.

To test this hypothesis, this study aimed to observe the rate at which children with ASD are living with both of their biological or adoptive parents, as compared to children without ASD in the general US population. Data for this study was taken from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, and a total of 77,911 parent interviews were completed on children aged 3–17 years, of which 913 reported an ASD diagnosis.

The results from various statistical analyses indicated no association between a child having an ASD diagnosis and whether or not the child lives in a family consisting of two biological or adoptive parents (compared to a family consisting of single parents, step parents or other types of households). This suggests that children with ASD are not at an increased risk for living in a household not comprised of their two biological or adoptive parents compared to children without ASD in the United States.

However, despite these results, there remains strong documentation of increased parenting-related stress and marital satisfaction among parents of children with ASD. An interesting cultural study found that Asian parents of children with autism living the United States had the highest level of stress compared to other ethnic groups. Thus, based on the results of this study, it can be inferred that many families remain married despite the presence of factors that might otherwise be predictive of divorce. This could be because, for some families, their spousal relationship may be their primary support mechanism. For other families, the financial and emotional challenges inherent to a divorce process may prevent them from divorce because parenting a child with ASD can require significant financial and emotional energy.

Other factors which may contribute to this lower-than-expected divorce rate among parents of ASD may be the increased probabilities that parents of children with ASD will be older and have higher education levels, which both also happen to be predictive of lower rates of divorce. It has been found that those with more education have children at later ages which also correlates to a more likely chance to have a child with autism. Ultimately, though it has traditionally been suggested that families of children with autism have incredibly high divorce rates, recent research suggests otherwise.

Freedman, B. H., Kalb, L. G., Zablotsky, B., & Stuart, E. A. (2012). Relationship Status Among Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Population-Based Study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(3), 539-548.

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