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Under a Looking Glass: What's the truth about Autism and Marriage?

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network
Date Published: 
April 11, 2017

From the outset, having a child with autism invited scrutiny of one's marriage. No sooner had Dr. Leo Kanner first described the condition he named autism, then he had a few things to say about the parents of the 11 children he diagnosed with it. He noted that three of their marriages were "dismal failures," and "even some of the happiest marriages are rather cold and formal affairs."1

That was 1943, but marriage concerns persisted well into the 21st Century. A few years ago, celebrities and activists pointed to a supposed 80 percent divorce rate among parents of children with autism. They used this statistic to underscore the stress these families face and their need for services. Certainly, both research and common sense say that having a child with a disability can add stress to a marriage,2,3 as well as a family.4 (See a related article, Stress and the Autism Parent).

But does the stress of raising a child with autism doom these marriages, more often than not?

The short answer is: probably not. Different studies have found both higher, and lower, divorces rates among parents of children with various disabilities, compared to other parents.5-8

Perhaps the largest study to date came down squarely in the middle, which may itself be good news for parents facing a new autism diagnosis.

The myth of the 80% Divorce Rate

Researchers in Baltimore investigated the supposed 80 percent divorce rate for parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Unlike other studies, this one was particularly large – using data from almost 78,000 parents, 913 of whom had a child with autism – and included families from across the United States. The bigger the study, the less likely the results are due to chance or something unique about the pool of people studied. The researchers, from Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University, found no evidence of an 80 percent divorce rate.9

In fact, parents of children with autism split up as often as parents of children who don't have autism, according to their research. In this study, about two-thirds of the children lived with their two biological or adoptive parents. That was true whether the children had autism or not. The severity of a child's autism symptoms had no effect on the likelihood that parents would go their separate ways.9

"While there are indeed stressors in parenting a child with autism, it doesn't necessarily result in the family breaking up more often than would occur in another family," Dr. Freedman has said. Still, he added, it's important for health care professionals to provide these families with support and training to handle the stresses they do face.10

Dr. Freedman's team speculated on the reasons these parents stayed together despite the social, emotional, and financial stress of raising a child with autism. Maybe parents can't afford to divorce. Or, given the social isolation that many families report, perhaps spouses must rely on each other more for emotional support as they raise their child. Other factors, such as parents' older average age, may also play a role.9

Regardless, it's clear that raising a child with autism can affect a couple, in ways large and small.

Spouses Describe their Marriages, When Autism is Involved

photo of married couple deep in conversation, illustrating article on divorce rate among parents of children with autismIn a separate study, three psychologists sought to go beyond the numbers to see how parents felt about their experience, in their own words. They collected answers to open-ended questions from almost 500 parents in the United States and other English-speaking countries. Like many studies, mothers participated in far greater numbers than fathers. Their heartfelt answers affected the researchers: "It was a rich – and often painful – experience reading their answers to the simple question, "How has your child in the autism spectrum affected your life and your family's life?"3

Many parents said caring for their child placed a "huge strain on the marriage." Some said they didn't have time for their spouse; others said their husband was "in denial" about the autism diagnosis. A mom reported, "My husband experiences cycles where he actually avoids us and our home." One parent seemed too harried to put thoughts into complete sentences, saying "[Our son] needs constant supervision, we do not have a normal life – marriage is strained – no time together as a couple, need respite care." Another said, "We argue more, snap at each other more."3

Some parents said such problems led to divorce. "Husband took off due to stress," one mother said. "The incredible needs posed by this child cause[d] my marriage to fail," said another parent.3

Autism does one of two things..."

But not all parents had negative things to say about their marriages. In fact, a "small number" said raising a child with ASD actually strengthened their marital bond. "My husband and I have had a tough patch of it, but we're much better and our family is very happy," one mom said. Another parent explained, "Having two boys with autism was never in my thoughts before becoming a parent, but it sure has taught me about unconditional love, and it has made my marriage stronger than any marriage I know." One husband said, "My wife and I hold a stronger bond to keeping the family together." One father summed it up: "Autism does one of two things, it drives families apart, or makes them stronger."3

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Additional Resources: 

See a companion article, Stress and the Autism Parent.

Photo credits, in order of appearance: Hisu Lee (Unsplash), iStock.

References: 
  1. Kanner L. Autistic disturbances of affective contact. nerv child 2: 217-50. Acta Paedopsychiatr. 1968;35(4):100-136. Abstract.
  2. Bristol M, Gallager J, Schopler E. Mothers and fathers of young developmentally disabled and nondisabled boys: Adaptation and spousal support. Developmental Psychology. 1988;24:441-451. Abstract.
  3. Myers BJ, Mackintosh VH, Goin-Kochel RP. "My greatest joy and my greatest heart ache:" Parents’ own words on how having a child in the autism spectrum has affected their lives and their families' lives. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2009;3:670-684. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2009.01.004
  4. Abbeduto L, Seltzer MM, Shattuck P, Krauss MW, Orsmond G, Murphy MM. Psychological well-being and coping in mothers of youths with autism, Down syndrome, or Fragile X syndrome. Am J Ment Retard. 2004;109(3):237-254. Abstract.
  5. Risdal D, Singer GHS. Marital adjustment in parents of children with disabilities: A historical review and meta-analysis. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities. 2004;29(2):95-103. Abstract.
  6. Hartley SL, Barker ET, Seltzer MM, et al. The relative risk and timing of divorce in families of children with an autism spectrum disorder. J Fam Psychol. 2010;24(4):449-457. Abstract.
  7. Saini M, Stoddart KP, Gibson M, et al. Couple relationships among parents of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: Findings from a scoping review of the literature. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2015;17:142-157. Abstract.
  8. Urbano RC, Hodapp RM. Divorce in families of children with Down syndrome: A population-based study. Am J Ment Retard. 2007;112(4):261-274. Abstract.
  9. Freedman BH, Kalb LG, Zablotsky B, Stuart EA. Relationship status among parents of children with autism spectrum disorders: A population-based study. J Autism Dev Disord. 2012;42(4):539-548. Abstract.
  10. Kennedy Krieger Institute. 80 percent autism divorce rate debunked in first-of-its kind scientific study. https://www.kennedykrieger.org/overview/news/80-percent-autism-divorce-rate-debunked-first-its-kind-scientific-study. Updated 2010. Accessed March 28, 2017.