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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Parents of Autistic Kids at Risk of Divorce?

Study Shows Three-Quarters of Parents of Autistic Children Stay Married
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 6, 2010 -- Parents of children with autism may be more likely to divorce when their children reach adolescence or young adulthood than parents of children without this or other developmental disabilities, finds a new study in the August issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.

Despite this increase in divorce seen as children with autism grew up, fully three-quarters of these parents did remain married, the new study showed.

"You are not fated to get divorced because you have a child with autism, but there is a prolonged vulnerability to divorce for these families," study researcher Sigan L. Hartley, PhD, a professor of human development and family studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison, tells WebMD.

The CDC estimates that about one in 110 children in the U.S have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the umbrella name given to a larger group of disorders that can affect social and communication skills.

Empty Nest vs. Full Nest

In families not affected by autism, "the day-to-day parenting responsibility dies down, and parents get more alone time as children age," she says.

This is not true for many parents of autistic children. Frequently adult children with ASD continue to live with their parents. There is no empty-nest syndrome in these households.

"If you have a son or daughter with autism, your parenting responsibilities remain pretty steady, and you don't see the drop-off as children age," she explains to WebMD. "The day-to-day parenting demands continue and remain fairly high," she says. These persistent demands may contribute to stress in the marriage.

Researchers compared divorce rates over time among 391 parents of children with autism and parents of children without disabilities.

The divorce rate for parents of autistic children was 23.5%, compared with 13.8% among parents of children who did not have any disabilities. The divorce rate was similar among both groups until children turned 8. This is when the divorce rate went down among parents of kids without developmental delays, but remained high for parents of kids with autism, researchers report.

More study is also needed to understand the issues facing these families, Hartley says. Services directed at families of older children with autism may help more families stay together. As it is now, most services focus on the early parenting years, she explains.

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