It's easy to get wrapped up in headline-grabbing statistics, which is why I am both disheartened but not surprised to see that as April's Autism Awareness Month has gotten underway along with getting a lot of play in social media lately with claims that 80 percent of married parents will divorce at some point after their child's autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis.
Is this oft-repeated number accurate? Fortunately, not by a long shot. The statistic was first floated in the media about a decade ago, just as autism rates themselves began garnering increased public attention. However, when studies were conducted a few years later, researchers found no substantiation to the claim. The largest study so far on the topic, published in 2012 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, used data from 77,911 kids in the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health. According to the survey's results, American children with ASD are no more likely to have divorced parents than typically developing children do.
Another study from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, conducted in 2010, used a much smaller sample size -- 391 families -- and found that 23.5 percent of parents of children with autism divorced, compared with 13.8 percent of those with typically developing children. While, yes, this small study does show increased divorce rates among ASD families, it is still nowhere close to 80 percent.
As a supporter of the autism community, it is important to me that parents who are already dealing with added responsibilities in caring for their child don't carry the unnecessary burden of feeling like their marriages are all but doomed. This is a myth and urban legend that I hope rides off into the sunset.
Putting on my family attorney hat, I would also like parents who do end up making the difficult decision to divorce, for whatever reason, to know that help and support are available to create a workable plan for your child's future and well-being.
Among the options we frequently turn to when parents of a child with autism divorce is the use of a family therapist familiar with the child, and autism in general, to assist parties in creating a child custody/parenting time plan arrangement that takes into account possible separation issues on the part of the child, rigidity in adapting to change, and/or other personal issues.
As for matters of child support, an avenue divorcing parents of a child with autism frequently explore is setting up a "special needs trust." A trust is able to provide not only for current support payments, but can also address the future needs of a child, including payment for health and educational costs, and food, shelter, clothing and transportation...all the way through adulthood. Having a trust in place can also assist special needs children, including those with autism, to qualify for more aid-based programs. Your family law attorney can give you more information about how to set one up.
In the end, I want to think that in all of this, there is good news for parents of children with autism. For better or worse, it appears that all families are equal when it comes to marriage and divorce. However, inherent in our family law system are provisions and special needs strategies that will be there should you need them. And that, rather than faulty statistics, is something I hope to draw attention to this month.