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How Can We Help Our Autistic Child Cope With Our Divorce?

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Updated December 17, 2010

Question: How Can We Help Our Autistic Child Cope With Our Divorce?
I'm looking for information on how to help my son deal with my divorce. I've been lucky enough to finally find a counselor who understands autism, however I'm looking for day to day strategies, how to answer the tough questions, what are the most common concerns of kids on the spectrum during divorce, how to ease the emotional inconsistencies, the schedule changes, changing roles, and self-esteem.
Answer: From Cindy Ariel:

Divorce is a very difficult transition for everyone in the family. Children often bear the brunt of the upheaval that usually accompanies this difficult stage of family change. Feelings of anger, disappointment, fear, shame, grief, relief all permeate the family members. Children feel it and are often caught in the middle feeling responsible for events and feelings between their parents and themselves. It’s important to acknowledge what you are feeling and recognize that these emotions are running high for everyone. The main goal in this regard is to minimize the intensity and negative affects of any emotional ups and downs on your child.

The way to answer the tough questions is carefully, sensitively, and one at a time. This is often best done with help and guidance from a professional who knows both your child and the situation though there are some generalities that can be made. If your child asks, he is ready for an answer. The answer should be geared to the level of your child and as honest and objective as possible under the difficult circumstances. While facts are important to children, they do not need to know every detail of why parents have decided it is best not to live together anymore. It is important not to split your child’s loyalties in two by disrespecting or speaking negatively about the other parent. They do need to be informed about schedule changes and have a clear idea of when they will see their other parent again. Emotional inconsistencies are eased individually; keep in mind the things your child needs to feel warm and safe and comfortable and loved.

It may feel as though the family is being literally torn apart, and in many ways it certainly is. But over time, everyone will grow and feelings and roles will slowly change. There will be less fear and emotional upheaval as time goes on. Self-esteem will continue, in part, to be tied in with both mom and dad so your child needs to feel as good as possible about each parent and his relationship with them.

From Bob Naseef:

Finding a mental health professional with a background in autism is certainly a blessing. The questions you raise are really better answered by a professional who knows you and knows your child. How a parent who is divorced handles these issues really begins at your child’s developmental level in terms of language and cognitive understanding. What’s missing from your list is how to take care of your own needs and the grief that inevitably accompanies any major loss and certainly divorce is such a loss. Many readers of this column may be worried about their own marriages while others are in your position.

As Josh Greenfeld wrote in A Child Called Noah (1970), “There is a strain on any marriage whenever a baby is sick. And we always have a sick baby.” The kind of chronic stress that raising a child with special needs entails can affect relationships at their weakest points. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2000), 47% of first marriages fail and 57% of all marriages end in divorce. Although the findings are inconsistent, there is general consensus among experts that while the divorce rates are comparable, there appears to be more reported marital distress among families of children with special needs (Seligman and Darling, Ordinary Families, Special Children, 1997).

The needs of the children with autism are complex and elusive. Getting wrapped up in the stresses and strains of everyday life, relationships inevitably suffer from lack of attention. When a disability or chronic illness is discovered, powerful emotions surface and may put relationships on trial. In the wake of such devastating pain, some couples are drawn closer together, but for others in a relationship that is fragile or unstable disability can be “the last straw.” Some families break up while others thrive despite their hardships. People can emerge from crisis revitalized and enriched. Some people feel relieved when a marriage full of unrelenting problems finally ends.

For a child to thrive, she needs energetic, committed parents. So taking care of your needs is important for your family as it is now constituted. Hopefully you have support for yourself in terms of friendship and compassion. Debriefing from a divorce can take time. Often I see people who are divorced but not emotionally separated from what they have been through. Help with child care, so that you can get some time for yourself is also wonderful when you can find it. If not, just finding and taking some short enjoyable time for yourself can be wonderfully refreshing.

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., are the co-editors of "Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People with Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom" (2006). On the web at http://www.alternativechoices.com

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