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Parents of Autistic Kids at Risk of Divorce?

Study Shows Three-Quarters of Parents of Autistic Children Stay Married

By Denise Mann
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.

Second Opinion

Brian Freedman, PhD, clinical director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Institute in Baltimore, recently published a study debunking the myth that there is an 80% divorce rate among parents of children with autism.

And "this study seems to further debunk the myth, as the results indicate that over 75% of families with a child with ASD remained intact," he tells WebMD in an email.

"Families with a child with ASD certainly face unique and significant stressors [and] these important results further suggest the need for more research in understanding the family experience and will hopefully lead to greater resources being provided for family members," he says.

Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science officer of Autism Speaks and a research professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says the new study offers a more complete picture of the stresses that having a child with autism can place on a marriage.

"For parents of children with autism, the stresses and rate of divorce remain high throughout adolescence and young adulthood," she tells WebMD. Children without developmental delays become more independent as they grow up, and parents spend more time together, but "the picture is very different for parents of children with autism," she says.

Most of the services for families affected by autism target young children. "We have very few services for these children as they move into late adolescence and young adulthood," she says.

"When children with autism leave public school, they often have no opportunities for independent living, finding a job, or going to school, so it is a very stressful transition period for families," Dawson says. "Adults with autism tend to live at home so parenting is a lifelong activity."

All experts agree that the time is now to develop outreach programs to help teens and adults with autism and their families.

"We have to put an equal emphasis on individuals with autism and their families as they move into adolescence," Dawson says. "We really don't know a lot about the best ways to promote successful employment and living arrangements and help them succeed in college."

SOURCES: Hartley, S.L. Journal of Family Psychology, August 2010; vol 24: pp 449-457.

Sigan L. Hartley, PhD, professor, human development and family studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Brian Freedman, PhD, clinical director, Center for Autism and Related Disorders, Kennedy Institute, Baltimore.

Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science officer, Autism Speaks; research professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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