A couple of years a go I was asked to write an article on The Affects of Autism in Families and in Partner Relationships, for the May/June 2008 issue of Family Therapy Magazine. Lately I have been getting emails in regards to autism and marital stress, and I thought I would reprint part of the article here, since the information is still valid. If you are interested in this topic, you may wish to read the chapter on the financial and emotional stresses of autism on the family that appears in my new book 41 Things to Know About Autism (just published by Turner Publishing).
Family life is all about relationships and communication: relationships between two people in love, parents and children, siblings, extended family members. Yet, autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are all about communication challenges, misunderstanding of social cues, and lack of emotional understanding, thus affecting every relationship in the family. In marriage, if one of the partners is on the spectrum, there will be more difficulties than the usual marital conflicts. Sibling issues are exacerbated by having an autistic sibling and/or a parent on the spectrum. Communication and social challenges can also impact the adult’s work situation. Grandparents are concerned about the effects of autism on their adult children (the parents), other grandchildren and future generations.
Autism: It’s a Family Thing
It has been estimated that the divorce rate is in the 80% range in families with children who have autism (Bolman, 2006). Despite high rates of marital conflict, many couples do not reach out for couples therapy. Lack of respite is a major reason. For most, finding a babysitter with whom then can safely leave an autistic child who has toileting issues, little communication skills, aggression and other inappropriate behaviors on a regular basis is difficult (Sicile-Kira, 2004). Another reason is their lack of belief that they will find a therapist understanding of their particular circumstance and offer any true guidance, thus preferring to use the precious time away from the child to confide in a good friend.
Marital stress around the child usually starts when one or both of the parents realizes the child is not developing properly. Couples who have a child who does not seek their attention in the usual way (i.e., eye contact, reaching out for or giving of affection, searching them for comfort when hurt) find it hard not to feel rejected or unimportant to the child. For those whose child develops normally and then regresses around 18-24 months, there is the added loss of the child they knew slipping away. Consider also that a couple looks forward to having a child, and each person had his idea of what the expected child will be like. When the child does not match the expectation, or regresses, there is a loss and anguish felt by the parent not unlike the stages of grief that people who lose a loved one experience (Sicile-Kira, 2004).
Other stages of added stress are: getting a diagnosis (family physicians are reluctant to make a diagnosis on a condition once rare for which they have no set treatment plan to prescribe); getting services (a constant struggle); dealing with adolescence (sexual development appears, uncontrolled tantrums can be dangerous as the teen gets bigger); and post high school (the realization that few adult services are available) (Sicile-Kira, 2006).
Keeping any marriage healthy takes time, and all too often, time gets swallowed up by the autistic child’s needs. Many children with an ASD have difficulty sleeping, meaning that at least one of the parents is sleep deprived. Usually, a role division takes place as one parent, usually mom, becomes the autism expert, while dad works harder to earn money or opts out. Differences of opinion exasperate an already difficult situation – how much time, energy and money is to be spent on helping the child is based on personal philosophy, and in this the couple may clash. Over time, dad becomes frustrated at the demands of their wives to interact or play with a child who does not know how, and moms become frustrated at the lack of involvements of their partners.
As well, a common pattern among moms is to wonder what they did wrong – drinking or taking medications during pregnancy, exercising too much, allowing the child to be vaccinated, thus adding feelings of guilt to an already stressful situation. Also, the couple eventually feels isolated because they feel it is hard to take an autistic child to people’s homes and are uncomfortable inviting people over.
Sometimes the couple becomes closer than ever, bonded in their shared circumstances. Unfortunately, usually the stress of dealing with autism and all it entails – the constant and necessary advocacy at school, the fighting for services and supports, the added financial burden, trying to handle behaviors and meltdowns at home – becomes a wedge pushing the spouses further and further apart. Overwhelmed, stressed and exhausted, the couple’s communication becomes impaired and even autistic-like, lacking emotion and reciprocity. This can affect other children in the family.
How Therapists Can Help
There many ways in which therapists can help the family unit. For all those who need more information or need access to a support group and are not yet hooked into resources, there are various support groups available in different areas. Check on the websites of national organizations such as the Autism Society of America, TACA, and NAA.
Couples need to be encouraged to acknowledge and face the emotions of the grief cycle (i.e., denial, grief, depression, anger) and the loss of the child they were expecting, and to work through these emotions. Misdirected anger is often released at school personnel in Individualized Educational Program (IEP) meetings or taken out on service providers, thus alienating the very people who are there to help them.
Encouraging couples to regularly schedule time together without the children is important. However, this suggestion is useless unless the therapist can support them in devising a practical plan for finding the respite help they need.
The lack of qualified babysitters can be a very real obstacle to finding time together or continuing therapy. Working on good communication skills and looking at how they can support each other is important. The couple needs to realize and accept that their partner may react differently to having an autistic child and a different viewpoint when it comes to how much effort and money to put into treatment, as well as what kinds of treatments to pursue.
Encouraging dads to take a more active role with agreed upon treatments, generalizing some of the skills the child has learned through his ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) program, helping with structure, limit setting and discipline can be very helpful. For this to occur, dad needs more information and training. Perhaps coming up with some dad-oriented informational materials could be useful. A good on-line support group for dads is http://www.fathersnetwork.org/
Autism Society of America, 2008. “Family Life.” http://www.autism-society.org
Bolman, W. 2006. “The Autistic Family Life Cycle: Family Stress and Divorce.” asa.confex.com/asa/2006/techprogram/s1940.htm.
Sicile-Kira, C. 2006. Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum: A Parent’s Guide to the Cognitive, Social, Physical and Transition Needs of Teenagers with Autism Spectrum Disorders. New York: Perigee.
Sicile-Kira, C. 2004. Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Complete Guide to Understanding Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and Other ASDs. New York: Perigee.