Autism in the Family - Parent Relationships

As Autism Awareness Month continues, I have been giving some thought to the impact of autism on parents and family members.  Having a family member with autism or other special needs is incredibly stressful for everyone involved, particularly parents.

While divorce rates overall hover around 50% in the US, rates of divorce among families that have a special needs child are significantly higher, possibly as high as 80%, depending on which research study you read.  While these statistics should not cause despair for the future of any particular relationship, they do underscore the importance of nurturing marriages where partners are facing the challenges of raising a special needs child.

Why Do Marriages Struggle?

As a parent raising a special needs child, there are many sources of stress.  These stresses can also affect your relationship with your significant other:

  • Financial strain - Many couples argue about money. Financial stresses become even more problematic when faced with the large costs of providing long term care and treatment to a special needs child.

  • Time constraints - Families are busy, and a typically busy work and social schedule can leave little time to reconnect as a couple. Add in taking a child to multiple therapy appointments, school and Regional Center meetings, and the extra time parents must devote to working with the child at home on issues, and it's little wonder that couples with a special needs child struggle.

  • Emotional toll - Learning that your child has special needs can take quite an emotional toll on you individually. Many parents struggle with complex feelings about their child's difficulties. They may blame themselves or their partner for their family's struggles, feel angry about the situation, or even feel a sense of relief at knowing what the problem is. Managing the child's behavior may become frustrating and overwhelming, leaving the parent with little patience for his or her partner. Whatever the stress and strain is in the particular case, it can take a heavy toll on significant relationships. Stressed partners may not be as available to support their partner through challenges. Blame, accusations, and misplaced anger can contribute to hostility in the relationship. In these situations, it becomes easy to allow the distance between partners to grow.

Tips for Healing Relationships

Wherever you and your partner are in your relationship, making some small changes can have a large impact.  Even if your partner is not on board, one person making a few changes in how they treat their significant other can have a ripple effect through the entire family.

The biggest key is to prioritize making time for each other.  Although it won't provide solutions to financial problems or solve troublesome discipline issues at home, spending more time with your partner will build positive feelings and experiences that will help you weather the challenging times.

Here are some suggestions for ways to start making a difference in your relationship:

  • Set a goal to do one loving thing for your partner each day for a week. It doesn't have to be complicated - something as simple as a back rub or an unexpected "thinking of you" email can show your partner that you care.

  • Plan regular date nights to get away from your kids and reconnect as a couple.

  • Set aside 15 or 20 minutes per day to talk with your partner or do something fun together.

Start with something small but manageable and build from there.  Also, if you feel stuck or overwhelmed in your relationship, don't hesitate to seek couples therapy to help with your particular situation.  Seeing a trained and experienced counselor can help you and your partner find new common ground and communicate more effectively about challenges.