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Autism Families: High Divorce Rate Is a Myth

Study Shows Divorce Rates Are Similar for Parents With and Without Autistic Children

Structure of Families With Autism continued...

The researchers also considered the severity of a child's autism and whether that had an impact on family structure. "That also did not seem to have an impact," Freedman tells WebMD.

When Freedman took into account co-existing psychiatric and other problems, such as ADHD or serious behavioral problems, in children with ASD, he found that the likelihood of living in a non-traditional family structure increased slightly.

''Those disorders in fact did seem to have implications for divorce," he says. Even so, he says, "I would not say it dampens the idea of debunking the 80% divorce rate.'' He points out that the overall percent of 64% of kids found to live in a traditional family structure includes those families whose children had both co-existing diagnoses and ASD and well as those children with ASD alone.

About 10% of children with ASD have one or more psychiatric diagnoses, and 83% have developmental diagnoses, according to a study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

Second Opinion

The new study may help reduce anxiety among parents of children with autism, says Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science officer of Autism Speaks and a research professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who reviewed the study results for WebMD.

''The 80% divorce figure has been part of official lore for decades," she says. "I think it may stem from the fact that we do know parents of children with autism are under tremendous stress."

''It's good news for families," Dawson says of the new study findings. "It really demonstrates that despite the fact that these families are going to be facing a lot of challenges, we don't have to assume that divorce is likely."

In helping parents of autistic children, Freedman tells them that communication is most important in dealing with the developmental disorder. Each parent should be allowed to express their frustrations, he says.

Getting outside support from family or friends is important too, he says.

While there is a tendency for parents to focus attention on the child and his needs, Freedman tells couples to schedule time for themselves regularly so they can tend to their marriage.

One Family's Story

Julie Waldron remembers not only the shock she felt when her son Frankie, now 6, was diagnosed with autism at age 18 months, but how quickly someone told her that her marriage was at risk. She remembers hearing about an 85% divorce rate.

''You're shocked and in a way mourning the diagnosis of your child," she says. Hearing about the high divorce rate was a kind of double whammy, she says.

Even though they felt they were doing well, Waldron and her husband, Peter, decided to go to preventive marriage counseling. "We were mutually concerned that we could be doing damage to our relationship that we had no clue we were doing," he says.

Now the parents of three children, the Waldrons say the diagnosis of autism helped strengthen their marriage because they learned how to cope with the diagnosis and the marital stress it can bring, and to work together.

''You need to find what works for you and your spouse," Peter says. For them, he says, that meant Julie was "the CEO of our children" while he took charge of working and ensuring that their medical care and insurance was taken care of, with each informing the other about goings-on.

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