Are Parents of Autistic Children More Likely To End Up Divorced?

Easy answer: no.
Real answer: it is complicated.

This post is not a particularly easy one to write. I like to look like I have it all together, I know how to handle anything that comes my way; the truth is that I have my struggles, just like everybody else.

Everyone in our house has their issues:
*Caleb is autistic
*My husband has ADHD
*I have chronic migraines and baggage from my childhood

The divorce rate for couples when one partner has ADHD is about twice that of “normal” couples; mix that strain with the added complications with having an autistic child, and you can lose your darn mind. And I do. Don’t get me wrong – there are days when I have to ask my husband to take over because otherwise I’m going to lose it. To be fair, there is no evidence that having an autistic child leads to divorce; in fact, the divorce rate of families with an autistic child was about even with families who have neurotypical families. This is explained by 1) couples with autistic children tend to be older, and 2) stressful situations can actually cause families to be closer together and weather the storms together.

I know that I married my soulmate. I know that Caleb is one of my two favorite people in the whole world, and I think he is my soulmate as well. Hell, I think my best friends and my dogs are my soulmates, so I may be overly sappy. I try to remember the love that I have for my husband and son, especially in the tough times.

When I turned 30, I decided it was time to do something that I had wanted to do for years, but was always too scared to do: get a tattoo. I’d known what I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, but over the years my ideas matured and I ended up getting a sort of trinity on my back – a trinity of what is important to me: “honor” (right shoulder), “trust” (left shoulder), “love” neck, “lifeboat” (under “love” on neck).

My family is my lifeboat. Together we sink or swim. Together we can survive the bad times and then revel in the good. I try to treat others with honor, love, and trust, but especially my family.

One thing that my husband and I are really working on (and I will probably repeat this a lot) is giving each other the benefit of the doubt. He didn’t answer my phone call? He must have not heard it or he is very busy. He didn’t mow the lawn? Maybe he isn’t feeling well. We have been working on this concept for about a year, and we are still trying to remember it. It is so hard because in the moment, I have real feelings that I want to express. I need to remember to check myself.

For instance, today, I totally chewed out my husband for not picking up his phone when I called him a couple times. This is a trigger for me because my husband has a tendency to not pick up his phone. He worked from home today, so I knew he wasn’t in a meeting. I got cranky. Turns out, I forgot to take my afternoon migraine pills. And it was 4:30pm and I hadn’t eaten yet today. I was tired, hungry, and in pain.

When my husband finally put his foot down and demanded that I take care of myself, I did. And then, boy oh boy, did I feel like a jerk. Gosh, why did I overreact so badly? Why did I forget to eat? And I forget to eat a lot. I have alarms that go off when it is time to feed the dogs, my son, my husband, but not myself. I need to remember to take care of myself so that I don’t become an irrational, crazy B.

All 3 of us sleep in a family bed because of Caleb’s sleep issues (which I will get into later), so my husband and I can’t really be romantic a) in our own bed, and b) until Caleb has fallen asleep, which is around 9, 9:30pm. My husband and I use the spare bedroom as our little love shack (dear visitors: I promise to put on clean sheets.). It is really important to take time out to be affectionate with each other. And I am not just talking about the dirty stuff. Sometimes we just cuddle and talk about our days. The dirty stuff is important, don’t get me wrong. But, it isn’t everything. Staying connected with my husband emotionally, intellectually, and physically are all very important for us in order to have a strong family bond. When my husband and I are happy, we are such better parents, and then Caleb is happy too.

We are building relationships that are going to last our lifetime; something so important deserves special care and attention. I think Jackson from Gilmore Girls said it best:

JACKSON: You know what I love about farming? The commitment. [Chris nods in agreement] No shortcuts, no quitting. You have got to be there for your crops morning, noon, and night. I mean you can have the greatest soil and perfect seeds, but if you are not 100% committed, you might as well pave over those 32 acres and build yourself a strip mall. You know what I mean.

CHRISTOPHER: It’s a lot of responsibility.

JACKSON: It sure is.

CHRISTOPHER: It sounds like you really love farming.

JACKSON: I do. Sookie and I, we both do.

CHRISTOPHER: Me too.

Secure Your Own Mask Before Helping Others

Having an autistic child can be exhausting and sometimes even a little soul crushing. Caleb doesn’t have the people-pleasing desires that usually fuels children to behave; while he cares about what we think of him, he usually acts before he thinks. Of course Caleb wants me to like him, so he usually recognizes bad behavior and asks for forgiveness after the fact. It isn’t personal; Caleb has problems with impulse control.

Usually when Caleb has a migraine, his impulse control is pretty much nonexistent. That is when I have those really bad days where you look at the clock and it seems to be running almost backwards. The days when you are white-knuckling it until bedtime.

I have found that on those days, I am also not at my best. I probably have a migraine as well, so dealing with a completely unruly child is stressful. In order to stay sane, I have to take care of me. There are a few things Caleb and I do in order to maintain our mental health.

Feelings Therapy: Caleb and I both go to therapy at the same practice at the same time. Once a week, we both take 55 minutes to work on ourselves. This is so good for us; Caleb is usually in a good mood after talking to his doctor and I usually have had a good cry and feel like a weight has been lifted off of me.

Timeout: Timeout can be a very effective tool when used properly. The most challenging part is finding a place for time out. I know a lot of neurotypical kids who are able to sit in a seat for 5+ minutes; this is not a reasonable expectation for Caleb. We tried just having Caleb stay in his bedroom, but we got into a smearing issue. (For those that don’t know, smearing is, well, here, you can read about it.) *gag* So, we ended up using the treehouse in our living room that has a removable ladder. It is high enough off the ground that Caleb will not jump out. And yes, he even once smeared in there and it took hours of scrubbing to get that sucker clean.

Now, we still use the treehouse, but we don’t take away the ladder. The rule for how long timeout should last is the child’s age plus 1; Caleb is 6 so he has a 7 minute timeout. During timeout, we do not engage with Caleb. In fact, this is when you go into another room, set a time, and spend 7 minutes relaxing, doing something for you. I will take the time to make some coffee or ice my neck. The point is, we need timeouts too. I have even given myself a timeout when I am overwhelmed; I will go into the bedroom and close the door. Caleb can live without being supervised for 5 minutes, and those 5 minutes just might keep me sane.

Exercise: Not only do you feel happier and stronger when you exercise, it also helps melt away the stress. A lot of my exercises are to strengthen my core, which is exactly what Caleb needs, so we exercise together. Another benefit to exercise is that Caleb is tired and calmer afterwards. For core strengthening exercises, I use this website as a reference.

Another good incentive for exercise is Pokemon Go. As a family, we have taken long walks downtown or at one of our many local parks in order to catch Pokemon. In fact, as soon as I am done with this post, we are going to downtown Farmington to Pokehunt. It is surprising how far you will walk without realizing it; walking is good exercise, but strengthening Caleb’s core is our priority.

Friends and Family: You need friends to talk to, and yes, cry with. Friends and family who understand our family dynamics are often very helpful and compassionate. I have recently decided to be completely honest with my friends about my life, instead of feeling like I have to sugarcoat everything to make people comfortable. Yes, the friends and family I depended upon before Caleb are completely different now. My husband’s parents are the most amazing people and I even use his mother as a guide for myself and my behavior. I have learned to lovingly detach from people who don’t want to understand Caleb and our life. Right now, I have 3 really good friends (not including my husband), and getting out of the house and hanging out with them seriously refreshes me. Sometimes I need to get away so that I miss my family and I really want to be with them. Cause, let’s face it, there are many times when all we want is just a moment of peace. We deserve more than a moment; we need hours. In order to have a social life, my husband and I work together so the other may go play. However, we are always back home by 7:30pm because bedtime rituals are super important.

Don’t Sweat the Little Stuff: I haven’t dusted my house in 2 weeks. Maybe 3. I swept a few days ago. Laundry is piling up, I have dishes drying that need to be put away, my bathroom floor is disgusting, and that is all going to have to wait. Having a super clean house is not even close to the most important thing in Caleb’s life. In fact, my husband and son would be perfectly happy living in filth. What matters is that I don’t kill myself trying to take care of everyone; that only leads to me being overwhelmed and cranky. That doesn’t help anybody. So, not stressing myself out makes me a better person.

My main motivation for my positive attitude is not only my health, but also Caleb’s. Caleb gets very upset when I am unhappy with him. Caleb doesn’t think about his actions until after he has already done them; this distinction is important because he really does want to be a good kid and make me happy. I have to remind myself this all the time. All 3 of us deeply love each other, and in order to excel, we need to remember to be kind to ourselves as well as others.