Divorce is a very difficult transition moment for both parents and children with autism. Family break-ups have never been ideal; rather they are an uncertainty and a harsh reality that many couples have had to contend with at some point in their lives. With an alarming statistic of an estimated 50% of marriages in the United States ending up in divorce, it is prudent for partners already in the process to ‘hope for the best but plan for the worst’ to keep themselves, especially the custodial parent and the child with autism, cushioned in case of uncertainties.
First things first: If there is the slimmest chance to stop a divorce from taking place, pursue it with all your might. Sometimes it’s just little unresolved issues like weight gain, communication breakdown, and unmet expectations that cause the drift apart, and if addressed accordingly, these little issues could be resolved to save the marriage.
However, if the worst comes to the worst and all reconciliation options have been exhausted, don’t push too hard. You have a life to live and a special child to take care of beyond a failed marriage. There are two elements or should we say three elements in a divorce situation, and all have to be addressed for a tidy transition, although this may not always be the case.
- You, the custodial parent regardless of whether you are dad or mum
- Your autistic child and other children if any
- The non-custodial parent
The Reality Check
If you are just starting out on the divorce process, here are just a few facts you need to know to keep in check with reality so that you don’t get lost in your own emotions when you should be working out a divorce schedule in the best interest of your child:
- The effect of a divorce or any life changing situation of equal magnitude is a risk factor that makes both the custodial parent and the autistic child medically vulnerable to physical and emotional illnesses.
- In comparing performance in school, the autistic child that has gone through a divorce situation has a higher than average risk of school failure compared to children with both parents.
- Divorce will have an effect, mostly negative, on the income of the custodial parent since if he/she will not spend time off work to take care of their child with special need, will have to pay for this service particularly during transition.
- Eventually, ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) children coming from a background of divorce experience a greater challenge when establishing mature relationships when they grow older.
Addressing the Situation Head-On
We will divide this whole situation into three aspects that you will need to address to come out strong and facilitate a smooth transition to the best of your ability.
1. Your emotions
As the parent in charge of the child, understand that more than ever, your fears, your feelings, and anxieties have to be addressed. If these are taken care of, you can remain strong and stable enough to go through the divorce soberly and handle your child’s best interest. However, it will take your resolve for this to happen.
You need to create a network of support from your close dependable friends, relatives to divorce and autism specialists. Don’t just wait for their sympathy; communicate with them exactly how you want them to help you.
2. The physical and legal aspects
Because the legal aspect of divorce tends to get complicated where a child with special needs is involved, get a credible attorney to take you through matters pertaining to child custody, visitation, child support, and property division. Some insight you will need regarding this includes:
- Who will live with your child just in case you do not get custody?
- How much contact should the non-custodial parent have with the child?
- How much child support should the non-custodial parent give?
- How should you schedule the child’s appointments, therapies, and other activities?
This is the best time to get as much insight as you can regarding the divorce, because you are in essence laying out a new beginning and a future for you and your child. It doesn’t have to be a dreaded sail as many have put it.
As we had earlier mentioned, daily parenting of a child with autism is a full-time job, and the custodial parent will always feel the effect on their income when they have to take time away from work to spend with their child, especially during the transition. When making a decision on custodial maintenance, take this into account. Additionally, you are not just raising your child in the short-term; therefore you will need to keep this in mind when establishing your divorce arrangements.
Think along the lines of:
A special needs trust – This is critical for channeling your child’s future funds for a better life. This trust should be the beneficiary of you and your ex’s child support in the unfortunate event of death. This is to make sure than even after any of you is gone, your child is still guaranteed support and quality of life.
Setting up a special needs trust is an expense you should not bear alone. Make sure it is split between the two of you for the good of your child.
Life insurance – A life insurance policy is appropriate because it will cover the lifelong total of child support your ex has to pay. In addition, make sure that you are keeping track of the policy payments by having your ex deliver a copy of the policy annually. Finally, the special needs trust also ought to be a beneficiary of this life insurance.
Order of child support – the order of child support usually dictates the proportion of child support that will be established in the process of a divorce. Because your child deserves the best, do not leave out matters like recreational cost, summer camp, school clothes and effects, college, health insurance and other important costs that will pertain to your child in the long-term.
Decision making – many crucial decisions relate to the life of your child with autism. These would include education, therapy and diet. In such cases, there are many loopholes your ex can use to get out of paying support. To protect yourself and your child, have a clause which expressly states that you as the custodial parent will be allowed to make important decisions concerning your child’s health and education, which the non-custodial parent will have to comply with.
3. Your child with autism
Because even in the most amicable situation, divorce will still affect your child, you have to prepare to handle it as cautiously as possible. Don’t let yourself be left alone in taking your child through transition. It is in the best interest of the child with special needs that both parents be present to get them through the trying moment.
Children with autism will be most affected by divorce and will react differently. Some may withdraw, become unresponsive, turn violent, become angry and more anxious, while still others may have problems getting to sleep at night and the list is endless.
Love, reassurance and safety
More than ever, your autistic child needs to feel loved, reassured, and safe through the entire process. Perhaps an encouraging point to note is that children are resilient, and if accorded a favorable environment, will heal faster in such situations compared to adults. However, this doesn’t mean that you’ll have it smooth all the way, but you are better off trying your best. All the same, allow them to take in the news and react to it.
Establish a routine
A comfortable routine leads to comfort and security. This is the main reason why the news for divorce or any alteration of the same nature will not go down well with your autistic child. On the positive though, establishing a routine in your divorce schedule in terms of pickups, drop-offs, dinners and sleepovers as well as emphasizing that those things will not change even with the divorce, will give them great reassurance.
This routine is also a clear indication to them that they are an important aspect of the healing process of the entire family.
Be on the same page with the non-custodial parent
The last thing an autistic child or any other child wants to go through is conflict right in front of their eyes. Further on, be careful not to get angry while breaking the news, as this only aggravates the situation. Reassure them that no matter the separation, both of you will always be there for them.
Address the child’s reactions, feelings and questions
Be keen on their reaction or feelings because addressing these is the first and most important step towards accelerating their healing process. While at that, you need to be careful to tell them only what they need to know or can handle. Some information can be too much or too adult for them.
Don’t put them in a situation where they have to choose between the two of you. Love them and teach them how to love, even in such hard conditions.
The bottom line
Finally, there is always a tendency for some children to take advantage of the situation to be naughty. Remember this is not an opportunity for your child to behave the way they want to just because they are in a vulnerable situation and you are trying your best not to hurt them. As firmly as you can and as lovingly, let them know that this is the number one thing that hasn't changed. The routine needs to be observed even when they switch homes and visit the other parent.
When you notice that things are not working as well as you had anticipated, there is no harm in getting professional help both for you and your child. Remember the ultimate goal is to do what is in your child’s best interest.