Autism Families: High Divorce Rate Is a Myth
Study Shows Divorce Rates Are Similar for Parents With and Without Autistic Children
May 19, 2010 -- Parents of autistic children often hear that the divorce rate in families with autism is 80%, but a new study debunks that figure as a myth.
''There really weren't any significant differences in terms of family structure when you consider children with autism and those without," says study researcher Brian Freedman, PhD, clinical director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
''In fact what we found is that children with autism remained with both biological or adoptive parents 64% of the time, compared with children in families without autism, who remained [with both biological or adoptive parents] 65% of the time," Freedman tells WebMD.
''That debunks the myth of an 80% divorce rate," Freedman says. An 80% rate is roughly double the U.S. divorce rate for first marriages.
Freedman is due to present his findings Friday at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia. About one in 110 children in the U.S. has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that include autism as well as Asperger's syndrome and other forms that involve difficulties in social relationships and communication.
The new finding, Freeman says, will hopefully relieve some of the stress parents of children with autism feel. Families he has counseled often tell him they feel they have gotten two diagnoses at once: a child with autism and a prediction of divorce, when they hear the oft-quoted figure of 80%.
''They talk about how disheartening that is, and how their relationship seems doomed," he tells WebMD.
While the figure of an 80% split-up rate among parents of children with autism is often talked about, Freedman says he searched for the original study and never found one. It may have originated from pure speculation and then was brought up again and again, with no solid evidence.
''Certainly studies of parents of children with autism talk about the extra stress," he says, so perhaps the leap was made that the stress led to an unusually high rate of divorce.
Structure of Families With Autism
Freedman examined data from the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, including a nationally representative sample of 77,911 children, ages 3 to 17.
He looked at whether the family structure was a two-parent household, with either biological or adoptive married partners, or was not traditional, such as a two-parent household including a stepparent, a household headed by a single parent, or other structures.
The percent of children with ASD living in a two-parent biological or adoptive household was close to the percent of children without ASD in such a family structure -- 64% vs. 65%.
That percent held even when the researchers took into account other factors that could have affected family structure, such as socioeconomic status or demographics.