Autism, families and the increased risk of divorce

For couples with children, the risk
of divorce is highest when kids are young. Taking care of young kids is both
stressful and time-consuming, and parents often find they have little time or
emotional reserve left over for their spouses. But once children hit their teen
years and become more self-sufficient, parents get a break and the risk of divorce
eases, studies have found.

The reasons behind the finding

So what happens to couples who have
a child with an autism spectrum disorder? These kids require lots of attention
even as they become teenagers and young adults. Potentially making matters
worse, kids with an Attention Deficit Disorder typically have communication
problems and engage in repetitive behaviours, which can add stress to an
already taxing situation. Parents of autistic kids have been told that their
risk for divorce is as high as 80 per cent.

To find out if that was true, a
group of researchers examined 391 families participating in the Adolescents and
Adults With Autism study and compared them with other families whose children
were developing normally. The families were matched based on the age, sex and
birth order of the child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as the
age, ethnicity and education of the mother.

It turned out that the divorce rate
among couples raising a child with an ASD was 23.5 per cent, nearly twice as
high as the 14 per cent rate for the control families. The risk of divorce was
even higher for families that had to contend with one or more older siblings in
addition to the child with ASD. The researchers also found that the younger the
mother was when her autistic child was born, the more likely she was to
divorce. (The same was not true for mothers in the control group.)

Not only was the overall divorce
rate higher for families in the ASD group, but their vulnerability didn’t begin
to let up until their autistic child reached the age of 30. For the control
families, the divorce risk began to decline when children turned eight, and was
“virtually nonexistent” by the time kids were 26, the researchers found.

The findings were published in the
August issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.