Another risk for families dealing with autism spectrum disorders -- divorce

For couples with children, the risk of divorce is highest when kids are young. Taking care of little kids is both stressful and time-consuming, and parents often find they have little time or emotional reserve left over for their spouses. But once children hit their teen years and become more self-sufficient, parents get a break and the risk of divorce eases, studies have found.

So what happens to couples who have a child with an autism spectrum disorder? These kids require lots of attention even as they become teenagers and young adults. Potentially making matters worse, kids with an ASD typically have communication problems and engage in repetitive behaviors, which can add stress to an already taxing situation. Parents of autistic kids have been told that their risk for divorce is as high as 80%.

To find out if that was true, a group of researchers examined 391 families participating in the Adolescents and Adults With Autism study and compared them with other families whose children were developing normally. The families were matched based on the age, sex and birth order of the child with an ASD, as well as the age, ethnicity and education of the mother.

It turned out that the divorce rate among couples raising a child with an ASD was 23.5%, nearly twice as high as the 14% rate for the control families. The risk of divorce was even higher for families that had to contend with one or more older siblings in addition to the child with ASD. The researchers also found that the younger the mother was when her autistic child was born, the more likely she was to divorce. (The same was not true for mothers in the control group.)

Not only was the overall divorce rate higher for families in the ASD group, but their vulnerability didn’t begin to let up until their autistic child reached the age of 30. For the control families, the divorce risk began to decline when children turned 8, and was “virtually nonexistent” by the time kids were 26, the researchers found.

The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Georgia State University and Boston University, said they weren’t surprised that parents of ASD children were nearly twice as likely to divorce. Their results were in line with another study that found couples raising a child with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder were about twice as likely to split up compared to other couples.

But the researchers had expected to find that divorce was more common in families with more than one autistic child and in families in which a child’s ASD symptoms began earlier or were more severe. None of those assumptions turned out to be true.

The researchers noted that parents coping with a child with ASD should get help in “identifying strategies to enhance their marital relationship in an ongoing way, such as learning how to best communicate with and support their spouse and carving out ‘couple time.’ ”

But they should hardly despair -- after all, more than 75% of such marriages remain intact. “It may be reassuring for parents to know that most marriages survive and thus their marriage is not destined for divorce, as is often incorrectly presented in the media,” they concluded.

The findings were published in the August issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.

-- Karen Kaplan