Coping with Divorce: Help for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"Any tips for helping my son with high functioning autism to cope with my recent divorce. He's taking this really hard to say the least."

For all kids, divorce is often stressful, sad, and confusing. But for children with ASD level 1, or High Functioning Autism (HFA), divorce is especially problematic due to their difficulty with transitions and dislike for routine changes. Unfortunately, divorce may be the most disruptive event in a "special needs" child’s life.

Research on divorce shows the following:
  • stresses resulting from the life changes surrounding the divorce make kids more vulnerable to physical and emotional illnesses, especially when moms and dads continue to fight over custody issues
  • kids of divorced parents are more likely to have health problems, to participate in more risky and antisocial behavior, and to be at higher than average risk of school failure than are young people from two-parent, non-divorced families
  • kids of divorced couples are more likely to live in families experiencing poverty or difficult financial circumstances after the divorce

Studies are showing that there is more confusion and disruption during a divorce – and the effects can last much longer – than previously thought. Some research suggests that HFA kids of divorced parents have more difficulty establishing mature emotional relationships when they become grown-ups.

Parents usually feel uncertain about how to give their “special needs” kids the right support through a divorce or separation. It may be uncharted territory, but you can successfully navigate this unsettling time – and help your child emerge from it feeling loved, confident, and strong. It is very possible to make the divorce process and its effects less painful.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Helping your youngster cope with divorce means providing stability in your home and attending to his or her needs with a reassuring, positive attitude. It won't be a seamless process, but the tips below will help:

1. Acknowledge your kids’ feelings. You may not be able to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but it is important for you to acknowledge their feelings rather than dismissing them. Also, inspire trust by showing that you understand.

2. Although strong feelings can be tough on children, some reactions can be considered normal. Sadness about the family’s new situation is normal, and sadness coupled with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness is likely to become a mild form of depression. It’s natural for kids to feel anxious when faced with big changes in their lives. Your children may express their anger, rage, and resentment toward you and your ex-spouse for destroying their sense of normalcy.

3. Be age-aware. In general, younger kids need fewer details about a divorce and will do better with a simple explanation, while older children may need more information.

4. Kids have a remarkable ability to heal when given the support and love they need. Your words, actions, and ability to remain consistent are all important tools to reassure your kids of your unchanging love.

5.  Conflict between moms and dads (separated or not) can be very damaging for children. It’s crucial to avoid putting your kids in the middle of your fights, or making them feel like they have to choose between parents.

6. Choose to focus on the strengths of all family members, and encourage your kids to do the same.

7. By providing structure and routine that your HFA child can rely on, you remind her that she can count on you for stability, structure, and care.

8. Be polite in your interactions with your ex-spouse. This not only sets a good example for your children, but can also influence your ex to be gracious in response.

9. Be patient. HFA children struggling with divorce may seem to “get it” one day – but be unsure the next. Treat your youngster’s confusion or misunderstandings with patience.

10. For all children, divorce can feel like loss (e.g., loss of a parent, loss of the life they know, etc.). You can help your HFA child grieve and adjust to new circumstances by creating social stories around “dealing with change.”

11. Especially at the beginning of your separation or divorce, you may need to pick and choose how much to tell your kids. Think carefully about how certain information will affect them.

12. Help your children find words for their anger and sadness. It’s normal for HFA kids to have difficulty expressing their emotions. You can help them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk.

13. Let your children know that, even though the physical circumstances of the family unit will change, they can continue to have healthy, loving relationships with both mom and dad.

14. Let them be honest. Some HFA kids might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Let them know that whatever they say is okay. If they aren’t able to share their honest feelings, they will have a harder time working through them.

15. Don’t be critical of your ex-spouse. This can be especially difficult when there have been hurtful events (e.g., infidelity), but with a little diplomacy, you can avoid playing the “blame game.”

16. If you often find yourself locked in battle with your ex over the details of parenting, try to step back and remember the bigger purpose at hand – raising a happy, healthy child.

17. If you can keep the long-term goals in mind (e.g., your kid’s physical and mental health, education, etc.), you may be able to avoid disagreements with your ex about daily details. Think ahead in order to stay calm.

18. If things get worse rather than better after a few months, it may be a sign that your youngster is stuck in depression, anxiety, or anger and could use some additional support. Watch for warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety (e.g., frequent angry or violent outbursts, poor concentration, refusal to participate in favorite activities, self-injury, eating disorders, sleep problems, trouble at school, withdrawal from loved ones, etc.).

19. However simple it may sound, letting your kids know that your love for them hasn’t changed is a powerful message. Tell them you’ll still be caring for them in every way just as before, from fixing their breakfast to helping with homework. 

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

20. Maintaining a “working relationship” with your ex can help your children avoid the stress that comes with watching their mom and dad in conflict. Such a transitional time can’t be without some measure of hardship, but you can powerfully reduce your kids’ pain by making their well-being your top priority.

21. Many children believe that they had something to do with the divorce, recalling times they argued with their mom or dad, received poor grades, or got in trouble. You can help your children let go of this misconception.

22. Never argue in front of your kids, whether it’s in person or over the phone. Ask your ex to talk another time, or drop the conversation altogether.

23. Resist the temptation to spoil your children during a divorce by not enforcing limits or by allowing them to break rules without consequences.

24. Physical closeness (e.g., kisses, hugs, pats on the back, etc.) has a powerful way of reassuring your youngster of your love.

25. Share logistical information. Tell your children about changes in their living arrangements, school activities, etc., but don’t overwhelm them with too many details.

26. Refrain from talking with your kids about details of their other parent’s “bad” behavior. It’s the oldest rule in the book: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

27. Preempt your kids’ questions about changes in their lives by acknowledging that some things will be different now, and other things won’t. Let them know that together you can deal with each detail as you go. Let them know that things won’t always be easy, but that they will work out. Knowing it’ll be all right can provide incentive for your children to give a new situation a chance.

28. The benefit of schedules and organization for HFA kids is widely recognized. These children feel safer and more secure when they know what to expect next. For example, knowing that even when they switch homes, dinnertime is followed by a bath and then homework can set a youngster’s mind at ease. Maintaining a set schedule also means continuing to observe rules, rewards and discipline.

29. When it comes to telling your children about your divorce, many moms and dads freeze up. Make the conversation a little easier on both yourself and your kids by preparing significantly before you sit down to talk. If you can anticipate tough questions, deal with your own anxieties ahead of time, and plan carefully what you’ll be telling them, you will be better equipped to help your kids handle the news.

30. While it’s good for HFA children to learn to be flexible, adjusting to many new things at once can be very difficult. Help your children adjust to change by providing as much stability as possible in their daily lives. Remember that establishing continuity doesn’t mean that you have to be excessively rigid, but creating some regular routines at both households and consistently communicating to your kids what to expect will provide them with a sense of calm and stability.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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