Helping Children on the Autism Spectrum Through Divorce

Your very sensitive youngster with Aspergers (AS) or high functioning autism (HFA) will probably sense marital discord long before you do – even if you believe you've been very secretive about it. He may internalize what is occurring around him and assume personal responsibility for it. It is a very disturbing time for child with special needs, and the internal personalization of the situation cannot be contained indefinitely.

In the AS or HFA youngster, this can manifest itself in:
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Increase in “acting out” or other “attention-seeking” behaviors
  • Increased difficulty in school
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Rashes and other skin irritations
  • Regular symptoms of physical illness

Maintaining peace wherever possible and providing reassurances as the divorce unfolds are important considerations for helping AS children through divorce.

Here are 20 crucial tips for helping your child with the transition from a traditional two-parent family to a single-parent family:

1. All kids will require constant reassurances during a time in which uncertainty about the future reigns. This will be especially true of the youngster with AS or HFA, and as you've probably learned, verbal reassurances are not enough.

2. Ask your child about friends of his whose parents are divorced. This is a good way to learn of his fears and assumptions about divorced parents, and gives you the opportunity to clear-up any misconceptions and remind him that other kids have gone through what he is now going through.

3. Kids on the autism spectrum tend to have many questions, feelings, assumptions and concerns about divorce. Many moms and dads find it difficult to just sit quietly and listen to their kids talk without trying to interrupt with a "fix-it" statement. Your AS child needs to feel heard with quiet patience and undivided attention.

4. Be clear in communicating that the divorce is not your youngster's fault and demystify any new environmental changes.

5. Confine negativity and blame about each other to private therapy sessions or conversations with friends outside the home.

6. Encourage your youngster to write, draw, cartoon storyboard, or use the computer to communicate his feelings and understanding of the situation. “Social stories” about divorce are very helpful as well. Review and fine-tune this information with him regularly and be prepared to follow his lead in opening-up discussion at times you hadn't anticipated it.

7. If you and your spouse are civil with one another, meeting together with your youngster will be an optimal demonstration of solidarity and goodwill. Explain the circumstances as you would to any of your kids. Don't be surprised if your youngster with AS or HFA punctuates your discussion with his own recollections of marital conflicts that stretch back in time — some of which you may have forgotten or of which you failed to realize the full impact.

8. If you, the parent, are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or stuck, then get help. Therapy can provide a safe, supportive environment in which you can gain insight, learn problem solving skills and find solutions to dealing with the anger and pain of separation and divorce.

9. It is important to stress and review all the things that will stay the same during this transition in addition to walking through the future changes, and to do so often throughout the process.

10. It is natural for any youngster to feel emotional upheaval in wondering whom to “side” with, especially if one parent “plays” the youngster against the other. Your youngster with AS or HFA is likely to feel emotionally torn – even if you are seeking to escape a harmful or abusive situation.

11. Keep visible conflict, heated discussions, and legal talk away from your child.

12. Know that certain sights, sounds, and smells can trigger thoughts that will lead to your youngster's need to verbalize his feelings.

13. Know that most kids are naturally inclined to believe that they are somehow the cause of a divorce. This may be intensified in your youngster with AS or HFA and will be reinforced if he witnessed or overheard conflicts in which he was at the center of an argument.

14. Let your child know that it is normal for him to want his parents to get back together again. Kids can feel ashamed about this very normal wish. You can explain to your youngster that once divorced, it is very unlikely that parents ever get back together, but their wish for reconciliation is very normal.

15. Many kids on the autism spectrum hide their feelings of sadness, grief, anger or confusion because they are afraid expressing these feelings will upset their parents. They need to know all their feelings are acceptable.

16. Minimize the disruptions your child’s daily routines.

17. Read together and talk about a child’s book on divorce. This will help you explain important facts to your youngster and help him formulate questions he might otherwise not have words for.

18. Reassure your youngster regarding personal safety. Many kids are concerned that, if their parents get a divorce, there will not be enough food or shelter or clothing for them. Kids living with single mothers may also need reassurance that she has a plan to protect them in case of fire, "burglars" or "ghosts".

19. Your youngster may well have to decide where - and with whom - he'd like to live. This can snowball and lead to other social upheavals concerning a new home, new neighborhood, new family members, and a new school. It may also mean leaving behind friends, family, pets, and very familiar environments. Be sensitive to these changes, because children on the spectrum don’t do well with change in general.

20. Your "special needs" youngster will require pictures, words, and stories to help make sense of it all and to foster some measure of safety and comfort.

*** Additional Considerations ***

Breaking the News—

As soon as you're certain of your divorce plans, talk to your child about your decision to live apart. Although there's no easy way to break the news, if possible have both mom and dad present for this conversation. It's important to try to leave feelings of anger, guilt, or blame out of it. Practice how you're going to manage telling your child so you don't become upset or angry during the talk.

Tell your child that sometimes grown-ups change the way they love each other or can't agree on things and so they have to live apart. But remind them that children and parents are tied together for life, by birth or adoption. Family members often don't agree on things, but that is part of the circle of life — parents and children don't stop loving each other or get divorced from each other.

Give your children enough information to prepare them for the upcoming changes in their lives. Try to answer their questions as truthfully as possible. Remember that children don't need to know all the reasons behind a divorce (especially if it involves blaming the other parent). It's enough for them just to understand what will change in their daily routine, and — just as important — what will not.

With younger children, it's best to keep it simple. You might say something like: "Mom and dad are going to live in different houses so they don't fight so much, but we both love you very much."

Older children and teenagers may be more in tune with what moms and dads have been going through, and may have more questions based on what they've overheard and picked up on from conversations and fights. 

Handling the Child’s Reactions—

Tell children who are upset about the news that you recognize and care about their feelings and reassure them that all of their upset feelings are perfectly OK and understandable. You might say: "I know this is very upsetting for you. Can we try to think of something that would make you feel better?" or "We both love you and are sorry that we have to live apart."

Not all children react right away. Let yours know that is OK too, and there will be other times to talk when they're ready. Some children try to please their moms and dads by acting as if everything is fine, or try to avoid any difficult feelings by denying that they feel any anger or sadness at the news. Sometimes stress comes out in other ways — at school, or with friends, or in changes to their appetite, behavior or sleep patterns.

Whether your children express fear, worry, or relief about your separation and divorce, they'll want to know how their own day-to-day lives might change. Be prepared to answer these and other questions:
  • Can I still do my favorite activities?
  • Can I still go to camp this summer?
  • Where will each parent live?
  • Where will I go to school?
  • Where will we spend holidays such as Thanksgiving?
  • Who will I live with?
  • Will I have to go to a different school?
  • Will I move?
  • Will I still get to see my friends?

Being honest is not always easy when you don't have all the answers, or when children are feeling scared or guilty about what's going on. It's always the right thing to do to tell them what they need to know at that moment.

The Importance of Consistency—

Consistency and routine can go a long way toward providing comfort and familiarity that can help your family during this major life change. When possible, minimize unpredictable schedules, transitions, or abrupt separations.

Especially during a divorce, children will benefit from one-on-one time with each parent. No matter how inconvenient, try to accommodate your ex-partner as you figure out visitation schedules.

It's natural that you'll be concerned about how a youngster is coping with this change. The best thing that you can do is trust your instincts and rely on what you know about your children.
  • Do emotions seem to be getting in the way of everyday routines (e.g., school and social life)?
  • Do they seem to be acting differently than usual?
  • Is a youngster doing things like regressing to younger behaviors (e.g., thumb-sucking or bedwetting)? 

Behavioral changes are important to watch out for. For example, any new or changing signs of:
  • anxiety
  • difficulties with appetite
  • difficulties with friends
  • difficulties with sleep
  • moodiness
  • sadness
  • school problems

All of these can be signs of a problem.

Older children and teenagers may be vulnerable to risky behaviors (e.g., alcohol abuse, drug abuse, skipping school, defiant acts, etc.). Regardless of whether such troubles are related to the divorce, they are serious problems that affect a teenager's well-being and indicate the need for outside help.

Adjusting to a New Living Situation—

Because divorce can be such a big change, adjustments in living arrangements should be handled gradually. Several types of living situations should be considered:
  • joint custody in which both legal and physical custody are shared
  • joint custody where one parent has "tie breaking" authority in certain medical or educational domains
  • one parent may have sole custody

Which one is right for your children? That's a tough question and often the one that couples spend most time disagreeing on. Although some children can thrive spending half their time with each parent, others seem to need the stability of having one "home" and visiting with the other parent. Some moms and dads choose to both remain in the same home — but this only works in the rarest of circumstances and in general should be avoided.

Whatever arrangement you choose, your youngster's needs should come first. Avoid getting involved in a tug of war as a way to "win." When deciding how to handle holidays, birthdays, and vacations, stay focused on what's best for the children. It's important for moms and dads to resolve these issues themselves and not ask the children to choose.

During the preteen years, when children become more involved with activities apart from their moms and dads, they may need different schedules to accommodate their changing priorities. Ideally, children benefit most from consistent support from both moms and dads, but they may resist equal time-sharing if it interrupts school or their social lives. Be prepared for their thoughts on time-sharing, and try to be flexible.

Your youngster may refuse to share time with you and your ex-spouse equally and may try to take sides. If this occurs, as hard as it is, try not to take it personally. Maintain the visitation schedule and emphasize the importance of the involvement of both moms and dads.

Children sometimes propose spending an entire summer, semester, or school year with the non-custodial parent. But this may not reflect that they want to move. Listen to and explore these options if they're brought up. This kind of arrangement can work well in "friendly" divorces, but is not typical of higher-conflict situations.

Changes of any kind are hard — know that you and your children can and will adjust to this one. Finding your inner strength and getting help to learn new coping skills are hard work, but can make a big difference to helping your family get through this difficult time.

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