Monday, August 29, 2011
Autism and Marriage
When Alanna was diagnosed with autism we had many people concerned about Alanna, but also many people concerned about us. I am happy they were, and they have good reason to be concerned. Divorce in couples with autistic children is higher than the general population. An interesting finding is that while most couples experience a rapid decrease in risk after their children reach about eight years old, the risk for parents of children with autism does not decline and remains at the same levels as parents with young children.
It is not difficult to see why this is the case. Autism, by definition, involves serious developmental delays (hence the term "pervasive") across all developmental domains. At eight years of age, a child with autism may only be functioning at a three year old level or less. Most parents are freed of the daily grind of caring for a child of eight - most children can cloth and feed themselves, use the toilet, shower and keep themselves basically clean with some reminders. They will have friends and can entertain themselves for short periods of time. Cognitively, they are capable of playing games adults find more interesting and can usually enjoy many adult activities, or learn with their parents by taking up a hobby or shared interest in sports.
It is one thing to have to change a child's diaper for 2.5 years. It is quite another doing it for 21 years, or longer. Many parents see early childhood as a challenge that will pass, but for some parents, it will not. It will only end when they can arrange long-term care and not feel guilty doing so.
Or, here is another example with which I am quite familiar. It is one thing to be up with your newborn for five to six months each night. It is quite another to be up with your child for five or six years, or longer without the benefit of daytime napping. If you are a parent, do you recall how irritable you were with your spouse? Now, try doing that for six years and it is not hard to see why the risk of divorce is higher.
Add to this the social isolation from friends and family and the economic hardship of having someone at home to care for the child (or working extra hours to provide therapies and interventions), and you have a recipe for disaster.
I pray often for my marriage with my own beautiful wife. I pray God builds it up, strong and able to withstand everything. I couldn't imagine raising two children myself, let alone with a child who has autism. More than once, we have rescued each other from completely losing it.
Wondering how to help a couple who has a child with autism, or other disability? Help them maintain a strong marriage. They will need your help and they will be grateful for it.