Autism affects millions of individuals and their families worldwide. The challenges faced by families of children with autism are vast, ranging from early interventions and special education needs to lifelong support. Among these challenges, one issue that has piqued the interest of researchers is the impact of autism on family dynamics, specifically in the context of parental divorce.
A recent longitudinal study delved deep into this matter, examining the divorce rates among parents of children with autism over nearly three decades. The findings, which appear in the Journal of Family Psychology, shed light on critical factors that influence marital outcomes within these families.
Autism, (formally known as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD), is a developmental condition characterized by a wide range of symptoms and challenges related to social interaction, communication, and behavior. Individuals with autism often have unique strengths and differences in how they perceive the world. It is a lifelong condition that can affect individuals differently, making each case unique.
The researchers embarked on this study with the aim of shedding light on the divorce rates among parents of children with autism. They recognized that families with children with developmental disabilities, such as autism, often face unique stressors and demands. Caring for a child with autism can be emotionally and financially taxing, and these factors can put additional pressure on marital relationships.
Understanding the prevalence and patterns of divorce in these families can help identify pivotal periods of increased divorce risk and provide insights into the factors that may contribute to marital stability or dissolution. Such knowledge is crucial for healthcare providers, policymakers, and support organizations in tailoring interventions and support services to meet the specific needs of these families.
“We have been following a group of now young adults with autism or other neurodevelopmental disabilities since they were two and have been in touch with their families for over 30 years now. We were interested in how family structures, including divorce, changed over time for these families and if there were factors that predicted these changes,” said study author Catherine Lord, the George Tarjan Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
The study included 108 families who had children with autism. However, due to nonresponse or attrition, data from 108 families were excluded. The researchers used a combination of surveys and assessments to collect data on factors such as marital status, the age of the child at divorce, parental education, race, and more. They also tracked when divorces occurred in these families and examined whether certain periods carried a higher risk.
The researchers found that the risk of parents experiencing a divorce by the time their child with autism reached 30 years old was approximately 36%. Two specific time periods had the highest divorce risk. Nearly 40% of divorces occurred during the first 5 years after the child’s birth, while approximately 25% happened between the ages of 10 to 15 years.
In contrast to families with children facing more severe developmental disabilities, a trend emerged during the teenage years among families with children on the autism spectrum who displayed higher levels of cognitive ability and verbal skills. These families experienced an uptick in divorce rates during this period.
“The surprising finding was that, in teen years, the divorce rate for families with teenagers with autism who were quite bright and verbal, started to increase, which was not the case for families with children with more severe developmental disabilities,” Lord told PsyPost. “We hypothesized that this was because there is more tension and fewer clear paths for youths like this and their families.”
Various factors were associated with divorce risk. Families with less educated parents and younger mothers at the time of their child’s birth had a higher likelihood of divorce. Racial differences were also noted, with mothers of color with lower education facing a higher divorce risk. Additionally, the presence of siblings with autism appeared to influence divorce risk, with a notable effect around age 13.
“Because it is very hard to determine what ‘average’ divorce rates are for different states and populations, we couldn’t compare divorce rates in our study to those of families without autism or developmental disabilities, but we could say that most of the divorces occurred when the children were quite young (5 years and younger), which is the case for divorces in other families,” Lord told PsyPost.
“Families who had two autistic children tended to stay together during the same time, but if they divorced, did so when the children were school age. Divorces were more common in families who had fewer resources (less money and less education) but weren’t related to how severely the children were affected.”
While this research provides valuable insights, it also has some limitations. The sample was not representative of the entire autism population, as it focused on a specific clinic-referred cohort from the early 1990s. Changes in autism diagnosis and increased awareness have likely affected how families experience autism today.
Despite the limitations, this longitudinal study offers an illuminating glimpse into the divorce rates among parents of children with autism. It highlights the importance of understanding the unique challenges these families face and tailoring support services accordingly.
“Many people have said that the divorce rates for families with autism are very high, but this is hard to tell because there aren’t state by state or city by city data on divorce rates, so we do have to be careful in making this claim,” Lord explained. “We also work with families whom we think are unique because they were astute and brave enough to bring their very small children (under three years of age) to clinics 30 years ago to get help, which may reflect strengths in these families that aren’t easily measurable.”
The study, “Marital Status Over 28 Years of Parents of Individuals With Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities“, was authored by Niki Bahri, Kyle Sterrett, and Catherine Lord.