Higher Incidence of Divorce with Autism Diagnosis

Husband and wife holding hands
Marriages can thrive with autism.

Is there a higher incidence of divorce with autism diagnosis? The daily demands of life with autism can cause stress on some families, which leads to a popular belief that divorce rates are higher in families affected by pervasive developmental disorders. However, a 2010 Kennedy Krieger Institute study examined this question and found that most families dealing with autism stay married.

Higher Incidence of Divorce with Autism Diagnosis Myth

The widespread belief that families affected by autism have a divorce rate as high as 80 percent has been around for years and was often cited by both major publications and autism organizations. The figure, which was more than twice as high as the general American divorce rate, alarmed many families. The high figure discouraged many parents struggling to create healthy family environments while building strong marriages.

The original source for the 80 percent autism divorce rate figure is unclear, which made the Kennedy Krieger Institute question its credibility. The fact that an unsubstantiated figure was so popular within the autism community led to the 2010 study to find out how autism affects marriages.

2010 Study on Autism Divorce Rate

Brian Freedman, PhD, head of the study and clinical director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, had worked with many families with autistic children that believed the 80 percent divorce rate figure. In a May 2010 Science Daily interview, Freedman said that parents affected by autism "don't know what the future holds for their child, and feel as sense of hopelessness about the future of their marriage as well--almost like getting a diagnosis of autism and a diagnosis of divorce at the same time."

Freedman acknowledged that previous studies that discussed the stress parenting a child with autism may cause. One of these studies, a 2007 University of North Carolina study, found that mothers of children with autism may be prone to depression. Yet no study had investigated any role that autism may play in a divorce. Freedman and his research team wanted to examine whether there is any scientific evidence that indicates a high incidence of divorce with autism diagnosis.

Researchers had a challenge because there was hardly any empirical or epidemiological research about the degree of separation and divorce among parents with autistic children. The research team used data from the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, which allowed them to evaluate 77,911 children between the ages of 3 and 17.

Autism Does Not Increase Divorce Risk

The Kennedy Krieger Institute researchers examined the National Survey of Children's Health data and identified factors in both families affected by autism and nonautistic families that can strain a marriage. Although parenting a child with autism can cause stress, there was not sufficient evidence to suggest that autism contributes to divorce more than any other unrelated factors that can affect a marriage. The researchers found that parenting a child with autism is not a divorce risk. In fact, majority of parents with autistic children in the study were married and living together.

Importance of Autism Divorce Study

The Kennedy Krieger study demonstrated that the higher incidence of divorce with autism diagnosis is a myth. Freedman and the researchers see the study as a demonstration that marriages can survive an autism diagnosis and calls for more research into ways two-parent families with autistic children deal with stress and keep their marriage strong.

Family Support for Autism Helps Marriages

One way families can learn to deal with daily life with autism is to use autism support services. Parents who participate in local support autism support groups and services for the whole family may find it easier to manage stress and create a healthy family environment. It is easy for parents with a child with autism to focus most of their daily attention on finding an effective treatment plan for the child and not have time for each other. Autism family support groups bring people together who share the experience of living with a loved one with autism. The exchange of ideas and moral support can help couples figure out how to care for their child and nurture their marriages. A good place to search for local autism support groups is the Autism Society of America website.

Marriages Can Thrive with Autism

The 2010 Kennedy Krieger study provides hope for parents of children with autism to be optimistic about their marriage. Daily life with autism may present challenges but family life and marriage can still thrive and be filled with happiness.

Higher Incidence of Divorce with Autism Diagnosis