Autism Families: High Divorce Rate Is a Myth

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

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

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.

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

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

International Meeting for Autism Research, Philadelphia, May 20-22, 2010.

Levy, S. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, May 2010; vol 31: pp 267-275.

Julie and Peter Waldron, Baltimore County, Md.

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