Autism and Divorce – strategies to help children and parents cope
- August 29, 2017
- Jennifer Hetherington
- No comments
Our guest blogger, paediatric occupational therapist Dr Nicole Grant, offers some insights into autism and divorce.
Autism and Divorce – the stats
According to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2015 alone there were 48,517 divorces. This accounts for approximately one third of all marriages, and about half of these involve children under the age of 18.
There is a lack of consistent data available regarding divorce rates in families where there is a child or children on the autism spectrum, however the figures vary between 50% and 80% . This increased rate of divorce is attributed to a number of factors, including but not limited to increased financial burden, fatigue, the impact of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, increased drug and alcohol abuse, and increased relationship difficulties possibly resulting from some of these factors.
Separation and divorce is traumatic for all family members. However, children with autism can be particularly affected due to challenges with changes to routine, which is a characteristic of the disorder. Children with autism tend to prefer predictable and fixed routines, familiarity, and structure to their days. This tends to all go out the window when parents separate.
It is an unfortunate reality, however, that a large number of parents of children with autism will separate or at least experience marriage difficulties. If this occurs, it is important that the needs of the children are prioritised and that children on the spectrum are well supported to cope with the inevitable disruption to their lives.
The three most important things to remember when preparing a child on the spectrum to cope with autism and divorce
1: Whatever happens, put in place an achievable routine that the child understands and can follow
Using schedules can be very useful in conveying what will happen each day.
For young children, pictures can be used instead of words to indicate what will be happening.
Schedules can be used to indicate school days, time spent at mum’s house, dad’s house, extracurricular activities and special appointments.
If there are going to be changes to the routine, prior warning is always best if possible. Magnetic routine charts that are interactive are a good option such as those available from Magnetic Moves, which were developed by an Occupational Therapist in Brisbane.
2: Give your child a special place at each parents’ home where they can retreat
Dealing with a separation can be overwhelming, and adjusting to a new routine and possibly moving house can be anxiety-provoking.
Children with autism often benefit from retreating to a quiet, comfortable place, where they can listen to music, read, use an iPad or play with fidget toys. A small tent, cubby, or pod chair can be ideal.
3: Talk to your child or children about the separation in a way that they will understand
A good strategy frequently used with children on the spectrum is the Social Story TM which is a specific story format proven to help children with autism adjust to new concepts and shape behaviour. Depending on the age of the child, the story can be as long or short as you need, and can include images and pictures.
Creative parents who want to help their children cope with autism and divorce, can create their own stories, including pictures of the child’s new home or school, or you might like to use one of these currently available online from Twinkl, Able2Learn or Amazon
Coping with behaviour changes
Your child will need time to adjust, and it is possible you will see an increase in self—stimulatory behaviours, sensory seeking, withdrawal or other behaviours characteristic of autism spectrum disorder. If these behaviours concern you, seek professional advice. Quite often these behaviours serve a functional purpose, and should not be discouraged without having alternative strategies in place.
You may need extra support for your child if you feel they are not coping with your separation or divorce. A child psychologist or paediatric occupational therapist will be able to assist.