Divorce affects countless families and children. It is a prolonged process of change that requires multiple adjustments over time for everyone, including children. Changes can be abrupt. Some of what happens is unpredictable. There might be a move, a change of school. Different financial circumstances might dictate a change in therapy providers. An idea and the reality of each parent having their own place take getting used to. The social and emotional side of divorce is difficult to figure out. How do parents feel? Are both still going to be around? Is it still OK to love them both? The present is confusing and the future is unclear.
If you know anything about autism, you can already see how a child on the spectrum would have a difficult time dealing with multiple challenges and stressors related to divorce. Divorce is challenging for everyone, but a child on the spectrum the difficulties are way beyond what a neurotypical child would experience in the same difficult situation. It is impossible to make divorce into an easy experience, but it is possible to take steps to help a child on the spectrum deal with it better. Those steps would take cooperation and commitment from both parents.
Please note that I am focusing here on strategies that specifically have to do with helping children with autism. Many general recommendations that also apply to children with autism are not included here. What you find below is tailored to children with autism profiles. This post does not address any legal aspects of divorce.
Before you tell your child:
If your child has private provides, such as a psychologist or a counselor, get their advice on the best ways to approach the topic with your child.
Think carefully about the message you are going to give. Children are most concerned about what is going to happen to them and how their lives are going to change. In the case of a child with autism, you want to be as specific and detailed as possible.
Many children on the spectrum have facial expressions and other non-verbal language that is not consistent with the strong emotions they are feeling. You probably know if this is the case with your child, but I wanted to mention it anyway. Your child might laugh at the news or look indifferent. Your child could make a comment that comes across as insensitive or inappropriate to the situation. Use your knowledge of your child's personality to respond with gentleness and sensitivity to any observable reaction. Your child will certainly be upset at the news.
Think about a good day and time to have the conversation. If you have it close to bedtime, will it interfere with your child's opportunity to rest? If you have it early in the day, how can you plan the rest of it in a way that would be helpful to your child? Maybe the best day would be right before the weekend, so your child can have a couple of days to process the news? Or maybe it is better that your child goes to school the next day and finds comfort in the structure and familiar routines of the classroom? Do not do it on the day when your child has a lot of challenging therapies or is exhausted from extracurricular activities. A day of an event that is expected to be memorable and happy for the child also would not be a good choice.
When you tell your child:
Be careful not to assign blame. Your child loves you both. He or she will be confused by the complex details of your relationship. You do not want your child choosing sides. Your child has enough on their plate. Aim to provide information that will help your child cope with the news.
If you have more than one child, tell them together. Keep in mind any challenges and vulnerabilities of your child with autism and tailor your communication style to those needs. If you have more than one child with autism, you will need to tailor your communication style so that it works for all of them. You can say that they can ask questions individually at a later time, so that each can get information at their own pace and level of readiness.
Use words and concepts that your child can easily understand.
If your child does better with visuals, use them. Get advice from your child's providers on what might work best.
Give information in small chunks. Check in with your child to see how they are doing, if they understand everything, if they need a break, want to stop, or want to hear more. If your child is ready to stop, respect that preference, but remain available.
You will need to assure your child that the divorce is not his or her fault. It is important for all children, but especially so for children with autism who have a difficult time understanding relationships. You also want to address it because, due to the common cognitive inflexibility in autism, if your child gets a different idea, it will be difficult to change later.
Be as specific and detailed as possible. Tell your child about all the things that will stay the same to provide a sense of stability and reassurance. If there are things that are particularly important to your child that will stay the same, be sure to emphasize that. "Daddy will still take you out for pizza on Fridays." "You will still go to karate." "You can still have play dates with Johnny."
You should have specific details on how and when your child will see each one of you. Even if you do not have a long-term arrangement worked out, you should have a short-term plan that is very specific and that you are both committed to. You can tell you child that this is the plan for now, and when there is going to be a change, you will discuss it well in advance.
Let your child's teacher and other team members know about the upcoming divorce as soon as your child knows so that your child can be supported and treated sensitively at school.
When divorce is underway:
Have identical physical calendars at both parents' homes marked with all child's activities and which parent the child will be staying with on which day.
Discuss with your child how they can share the news with others. Let them know that they do not have to share if they do not want to.
Depending on your child's profile, you might want to suggest specific wording and practice it. You could also practice what to say if they are asked by a classmate or a friend about the divorce. It is also a good idea to give your child wording for saying that he or she does not feel like discussing it.
You will likely need to provide the same information and answer the same questions from your child many times, over a period of time. Children with autism often require extra time to fully process information. Some of the processing can take months and even years. Many children with autism also repeatedly ask questions they already know answers to. It might be a sign of anxiety, or might be a way of finding reassurance. Be prepared and patient.
Provide opportunities for your child to discuss divorce-related issues with you, so that it does not seem like a topic that is closed for discussion.
Maintain all existing routines as much as possible. If a routine needs to be changed, make slow gradual changes rather than a one-time significant change. This might apply to co-parenting time. Your child might need time to get used to being without one of the parents for periods of time. Pre-view and process all upcoming changes in routines with your child. As much as possible, let your child have control over new routines.
Maintain similar routines, interventions and rules across both households. This can be very difficult considering that one of the reasons for divorce is usually parents' inability to communicate well, but the more you can make it happen, the easier things will be for your child.
Create new routines for "hand-offs" between parents. Make them as structured as your child needs, and create visual supports as needed. Pre-view routine right before "hand-off" if needed. Use visuals if they are helpful to your child.
If one of the parents is moving out and taking household items, think carefully about items that your child is attached to or that are going to noticeably change the feel of the home If possible, leave things as they are; otherwise, pre-view the changes with your child and make a plan for what you will have instead. If you can delay those physical changes until your child adjusts to the new situation, that might be preferable. Arrange for your child not to witness the move-out process.
When deciding on a co-parenting schedule, try to minimize the number of transitions the child needs to go through. Children on the spectrum might not do well alternating days with each parent. Keep in mind your child's ability to deal with transitions and each parent's ability to parent the child with consideration for all his or her needs related to autism.
Match co-parenting schedule to your child's profile. If your child needs things to be very predictable, your co-parenting schedule should be very structured. If your child can tolerate and maybe would even prefer a more flexible arrangement, that can be considered. Keep in mind that as your child grows and develops, his or her needs might change and schedules might need to be updated.
If one parent has been more involved in the child's special needs programming, the other parent needs to catch up in order to parent the child in the way that would address needs related to autism.
Each parents' home should have sensory opportunities for the child that are known to be helpful.
Make sure to have your child's favorite foods and snacks, as well as preferred activities and items, in both homes, so that your child feels comfortable in both places.
If your child has executive functioning (organizational) challenges, which are common in autism, minimize the number of things that need to be carried between parents' places.
Be sensitive to your child's level of comfort at each parent's place. Children with autism can have rigidities, anxiety, strong reactions to small sensory factors, etc., that can be intensified by the divorce process. Do not take your child's reactions personally and focus on helping him or her make a gradual transition to the new situation at a comfortable pace.
Make sure your child does not witness heated divorce-related discussions and arguments. Children on the autism spectrum can easily pick up emotional states from others. If they are exposed to your anger or resentment, they might experience the same emotion, sometimes with much greater intensity than you are experiencing it. They can also become confused and upset about what is going on due to challenges interpreting social interactions.
Each parents should monitor their well-being and exercise self-care. How well your child fares through the divorce process will in part depend on your ability to take care of yourself and be available and present to him or her. You know that your child requires a lot of special parenting long-term, and you need to be able to keep running that marathon while going through a divorce.
If possible, use existing supports and resources (counselors, psychotherapists) to support your child through divorce.
If possible, it is ideal to keep the child in the same school with the same group of peers, as long as the school has generally been a good place for him or her.
The general strategies of chunking information, using visual supports and social stories, providing predictability and structure, and pre-viewing all new routines should always be considered and used as needed for each child.
The bottom line is, in divorce situation the best thing is for parents to prioritize their children's well-being over other considerations. It is even more important for parents whose children have autism.
Children with autism are more vulnerable to the effects of change and less capable of interpreting and navigating the complex social and emotional aspects of divorce. To put it simply, children with autism are less capable of coping with divorce than neurotypical children. They will need increased attention and sensitivity from their parents at this time. This is certainly very difficult considering that parents are also going through a significant and traumatic personal transition. I hope that the above strategies will provide helpful guidance, and I wish you well on your journey.