Marital Stress and Parenting Kids on the Autism Spectrum: 20 Tips for Spouses

Becoming a parent of an Aspergers or high functioning autistic (HFA) youngster changes your identity forever. There is a balancing act between (a) caring for the needs of your “special needs” youngster and (b) putting time and effort into the maintenance and growth of yourself and your marriage.

The kind of stress that raising a "special needs" youngster often entails can affect relationships at their weakest points. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47% of first marriages fail and 57% of all marriages end in divorce. Although the findings are inconsistent, there is general consensus among professionals that, while the divorce rates are comparable, there appears to be more reported marital distress among families of kids with special needs.

Some areas that will be impacted in your marriage are:
  • Finances
  • Future planning
  • Parenting style
  • Recreation
  • Self-esteem
  • Sexuality
  • Social life
  • Spirituality

Moms and dads of kids on the autism spectrum often face a life very different from what they had originally imagined. The needs of these young people are often complex and illusive. Searching to find the cause of the youngster’s developmental problems - and the best treatment for it - can be a long hard journey. When the diagnosis is made, powerful emotions may surface - and may put the marriage on trial.

How can couples understand each other in the wake of such a challenge?

Challenging life events can serve as catalysts for change. Some families disintegrate while others thrive despite their hardships. Parents can emerge from crisis revitalized and enriched. Hope for relationships really can spring from the crises parents experience when their youngster has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

If you and your spouse are parenting an Aspergers or HFA youngster, here are some suggestions to help your relationship:

1. A major key to coping with stress and change is to try to accept it and to regularly express your feelings and thoughts to one another. Of course a diagnosis does not destroy your marriage – but it will shift the balance in your marital relationship. You and your partner will be adjusting in different ways, and often at a difference pace. Sometimes your partner will want to talk about the situation, and then other times may need time alone.

2. Allow friends and family to provide extra support, or seek professional help if your marriage is in jeopardy.

3. Although your marriage is forever changed, the change doesn't have to be negative. Many partners share their sense of joy, awe and thankfulness as they speak about their special youngster. Because they were able to communicate and openly share with one another, their marriage is also enriched.

4. Be patient with one another.

5. Celebrate each milestone.

6. When an individual is in pain, he/she may withdraw or become frustrated and angry. It’s hard to talk about something we have no power to change or fix. At times the reactions of partners can become polarized or opposite (e.g., one partner may notice problems in the Aspergers or HFA youngster and tend to worry and feel negative, while the other partner holds hope and optimism that - in time - everything will be fine). Try to consider all of your feelings toward your youngster - both positive and negative - and discuss issues in ways that will help both of you feel understood and find solutions to problems.

7. Develop a strong family support network.

8. Look at what professionals believe make a strong family. The list includes communication, listening, affirming, respecting, trusting, having fun and a sense of humor, and knowing when to seek help. These strengths need to be worked on in a couple's marriage relationship, too.

9. When possible share the responsibilities at home by working together on chores, childcare, and education. It is helpful when partners both work to learn about their youngster’s disorder, prepare for and attend IEP meetings, etc. Get involved in the special needs community if you can. There’s so much to manage everyday that reaching out to your spouse, relatives or friends can help lessen the burden.

10. Reaffirm your marriage commitment to one another.

11. Realize that children on the spectrum will disrupt the course of your marriage now and then. It simply comes with the territory, but can be easily worked out.

12. Remember to take care of your relationship. Make time for the two of you to be alone every day – even if it is a walk around the block. Some time away together is important also.

13. Sometimes a mental health professional can be helpful to you in understanding the needs of Aspergers and HFA kids, yourself, and your marriage. Some parents are reluctant to take this step, but if it becomes hard to function from day to day, this kind of help may be in order. Just as you would consult more than one specialist for your youngster if necessary, do likewise for yourself. If your spouse is too discouraged, then start by yourself. Sometimes a change in one spouse changes the chemistry of the situation for the better.

14. Sort out what is important and what isn't important to the two of you. Really look at your values and your hopes and dreams for your life together. Discuss what you can – and cannot - accomplish.

15. Your youngster has a condition that may require lots of care and supervision in the early years. In the struggle to advocate for your kid’s needs, your own needs as a parent and as spouse may get lost. Many spouses stop focusing on their marriage, but this never helps. As hard as it may sound at first, start to think about taking care of yourself and adding some fun and enjoyment into your life, even though it can take a long time for this to feel okay.

16. Take time to pursue the things that renew you as individuals.

17. Talk openly about problems and issues when they occur.

18. Together, learn all you can about your youngster's disorder.

19. Family life can be a test of love and resilience, so taking good notes and working to understand each other's wants and needs are vital to the success and survival of an intimate relationship. Life has veered-off a bit from what you had expected it to be. Try not to blame each other for the situation. It takes time to sort this stuff out. Be kind to yourself and each other when the going gets rough.

20. Prayer and meditation are useful tools for many parents of special needs children.

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Anonymous said...

I feel Flynn has made us stronger as an entire family and my marriage is actually much better now than it was before. :)

Anonymous said...

A fulfilling marriage is very difficult when both children and your spouse are on the spectrum. You feel so alone and short changed of your dreams.

Anonymous said...

Sadly many marriages don't survive and many of us are left to parent on our own.

Anonymous said...

It's hard dealing with the negativity of our aspie teen with no family to help and little outside help, and all we ever seem to do is spend what little time we have together talking about her and the problems caused. We figure accepting the condition and the fact that it's permanent will help us work out management strategies and move on rather than wasting time trying to fix an unfixable problem. That will give us the freedom and time to focus on each other again like we used to.

Anonymous said...

Divorce is even more difficult when both child and ex spouse are on the spectrum. Despite years of special ed, numerous neuropsych assessments, and what just 5 minutes of plain observation would tell you; his father won't accept his kid's diagnosis and instead believes he is 'spoiled.' Cognitive rigidity, lack of seeing things from another's viewpoint, and poor management of strong emotions, does that sound familiar? Those traits makes it impossible to come to a parenting agreement. My old friends don't understand special needs and have pulled away. My new friends in the special ed community are taxed themselves and can't' provide me with a support system. The court system is slow to help resolve issues and costly. All my money is tied up in paying for special education and lawyer fees.
I agree my dreams have been short changed. Being a good parent does not improve my standing in the community nor add zeroes to my paycheck.

Anonymous said...

That's great, Annie. I was hoping the same but the partnering to raising my son did not happen. I think sometimes one parent may feel inadequate or just does not want to accept that something is different. It's a shame because there is no growth as a parent and no bonding between parent and child. All children are different and we can never give up if we truly love them.
3 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

That's what's happening in my
Marriage because my husband doesn't want to take the time to
Know what aspergers is all about and he does not understand my frustration in dealing with my daughter alone because his answer to everything is just punish her ... Well we know where that would end up

Summer said...

It's being a nightmare. My husband was never a father to educate our son. Now he is cancer diagnosed and our aon adhd and asperger at the same time. Living everyday with him has become a nightmare. Verbal and physical agretion and no will to work on himself is making it worst. Everyday he uses now tk promise do something that never arrives the day after, instead, we start from zero. He blaims me for everything now, so he assumes he is not the one who need to work on his asperger but me.
Specialist haven't being so far a help, they propose and give tips I have already applied for year to my son without success.
I feel a big heavy weight on my back and start to feel depressed, lonely and so tired. I don't feel any hope.

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