Why Your Child's Autism Puts a Strain on Your Marriage

Collaboration Can Help Keep Your Marriage Strong

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a uniquely stress-inducing disorder for caregivers. In fact, according to several studies, ASD causes more caregiver strain than most other developmental disabilities. Autism in children can lead to unusual and difficult-to-manage changes, disagreements, and frustrations for parents. For some couples, the process of addressing and resolving these issues leads to a stronger bond. For others, the stress can cause a marriage to crack and crumble.

What are the factors that cause unusual stress? How can you become one of those couples who weather the stress and become stronger as a result?

A couple sitting down looking angry
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You Respond Differently to Concerns About Your Child's Development

Your child's grandparent, teacher, or babysitter tells you that they see something "off" about your child. Perhaps they don't respond when spoken to, their play is a little too solitary, or their development of spoken language is a bit slow. How do you respond?

Some couples respond in precisely opposite ways. One parent becomes defensive or ascribes the child's differences to other strengths, saying, for example, "Of course he isn't responding to you when you call. He's too busy doing that advanced puzzle!" Meanwhile, the other parent becomes concerned, watching for every unusual behavior or developmental delay. The conversation goes something like this:

Parent A: Mom was right. Johnny doesn't respond when I call his name, but he seems to hear okay...I wonder if we should take him to the doctor.

Parent B: Johnny's fine. It's your mom who's over-sensitive.

Parent A: I think Mom had a point; I've noticed that he seems awfully anti-social.

Parent B: Will you please quit worrying?

If Grandma really was correct, these types of conversations will continue. They're likely to become longer and more heated.

At some point, Parent A will take the child to be evaluated. At that point, disagreements can become serious. Parent B may reject the results of an evaluation, or see them as unimportant. One parent may feel pushed while the other feels ignored or rejected.

Over time, this type of disagreement can lead to serious rifts as questions arise over whether or not to spend money on therapies, special camps, or supportive programs. It can also become an issue if parents air their differences in front of other children or family members.

A qualified, experienced doctor will only diagnose a child with ASD if that child has significant delays and challenges that are affecting the child's ability to function. The key, in this situation, is for Parent A to clarify for Parent B why a diagnosis is helpful. The parents may need to find common ground: a way to celebrate their child's uniqueness while also ensuring their child gets the help they need to function effectively at home, at school, and in the community.

You React Differently to the Challenges of Autism

Children with ASD are different from one another and different from other neurotypical children. For some parents, those differences represent a challenge to be met or an opportunity to grow and learn. For other parents, those same differences are overwhelming and upsetting. It's easy to understand either perspective, as children with ASD:

  • May not use spoken language
  • May be aggressive or have disturbing or even disgusting behaviors
  • May behave in embarrassing ways in public places
  • May be unable or unwilling to participate in typical play or activities
  • May have serious learning disabilities and/or low IQs

It takes energy and imagination to figure out how to engage with a child on the autism spectrum, and the process can be exhausting.

Perhaps most difficult for many adults, being the parent of a child with ASD means being an outsider to the parent club. Your child is unlikely to be part of a sports team or band. Playdates are hard work. Party invitations are almost non-existent. Being a parent of a child with autism can make you feel isolated, frustrated, or even embarrassed.

It's tempting for a parent who does work well with a child on the spectrum to take on all the responsibility. After all, they don't mind doing it—and the other parent may feel relieved. There's no friction. The problem with this approach is that parents who should be a team start living separate lives. At a certain point, they have little in common.

When one parent tends to take on most of the responsibility, it's important for the other parent to continue to spend quality time with their child. It may be unsettling or even frightening at first, but there is a great deal to be gained. Not only will the parent learn about their child and his or her needs, but they may even discover an unexpected ability to bond. And even if it's only a gesture, spending the time can mean the world to one's partner.

You Respond Differently to the Uncertainties Surrounding Autism

If your child had a straightforward medical diagnosis, it might be easier to agree on finding and following the best medical advice. But there is nothing straightforward about autism. Here are just a few of the ways in which ASD can be frustrating and confusing:

  • The autism spectrum is really just a set of symptoms that, in the 1980s, was expanded to include a fairly wide range of disabilities. Asperger syndrome wasn't added to the diagnostic manual until 1994—and it disappeared again in 2013. It's very hard to make sense of a constantly-changing disorder.
  • No one, including your doctor, can provide an accurate prognosis for your child. What will they be able to do when they grow up? What supports will they need as an adult? No one knows—not you, not your partner, and certainly not your in-laws.
  • No one, including your child's teacher or therapist, can tell you how much of which therapy or drug is enough (or too much) for your child. What's worse, there are many risky and/or unproven therapies available. You can try one therapy or 50, and you may get terrific or terrible results.
  • No one can accurately determine whether your child will do better in an inclusive school setting or an autism-specific school or some combination of both. Educational professionals may have opinions, but those opinions are often incorrect. The only way to find out is to experiment on your child and watch to see what happens.

All this uncertainty is bound to lead to differences between parents. While one parent wants to stick with conservative measures, perhaps another is interested in exploring new options. While one parent is eager to have their child included with neurotypical peers, another worries about bullying and wants a specialized setting.

Response to uncertainty is often a result of personality and experience. One parent, for example, may have lived through bullying while another had a terrific school experience. One parent may enjoy the process of learning about multiple therapeutic options while the other feels overwhelmed. Decisions about schools or planning for adulthood are emotional, as they have great significance for the entire family—so differences surrounding these issues can lead to serious relationship repercussions.

Compromise may be important in this situation. It's almost certainly the case that neither parent wants to risk harm to their child—and that means that certain types of "biomedical" treatments are out of bounds. In addition, both parents can probably agree that free, high-quality options (such as public school and insurance-sponsored therapies) are worth a try. If these options don't work out, additional options are always available.

One Parent Becomes an Autism Specialist While the Other Avoids the Topic

If one parent—oftentimes the mother—is the primary caregiver, that parent often starts off as the person who learns about autism first. She is the one who talks with teachers about "issues" at preschool. She is the one who meets developmental pediatricians, makes evaluation appointments, attends those evaluations, and hears about results.

Because mothers are usually the most involved early on, they often become avid researchers and focused advocates. They learn about special education law, therapeutic options, health insurance, support groups, special needs programs, special camps, and classroom options.

Mothers thus become the target audience for autism-related advertising, conferences, products, programs, and groups. Mothers are the movers and shakers for fundraisers, and it's usually moms who take on corporations and non-profits, pushing them to provide autism-friendly products, events, and programs. When the events and programs take place, mothers are usually the ones to take their children.

All this makes it incredibly difficult for partners who are not primary caregivers to jump in and take equal responsibility for their child. Not only has the primary caregiver claimed responsibility and authority, but few offerings are as friendly to fathers or non-primary caregivers as they should be. The result is that the non-primary caregiver winds up being an outsider to autism. They may take responsibility for typically developing siblings or household chores while remaining utterly ignorant of what their partner and child with ASD are up to.

The obvious solution to this problem is to nip it in the bud. As is possible, caregivers should share both responsibility and authority. Rather than divide and conquer, couples should work hard to share and collaborate.

You Think Differently About How Much Time, Money, and Energy Should Be Focused on Autism

This is a huge issue—because your perspective on this issue will affect almost every decision you make as a couple. If you disagree on a basic level, you may, in fact, find that you're not compatible life partners. Here's why:

Time is precious. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see how autism can completely fill a parent's waking hours. Start with the time required for special education meetings and managing teachers and therapists in the school setting. Add the time required for planning, getting to, and attending doctors' visits and therapists. These are non-optional, and it's no joke trying to find an autism-friendly dentist in your local neighborhood.

Now consider what might happen if one parent decides to turn online autism research into a full-time hobby. Toss in autism support groups, the school's special needs committee, autism conferences and conventions, autism-related lectures and fundraisers, and special needs sports programs, videos, books...It's easy to see how autism could quickly consume all available time.

But a good marriage or partnership takes dedicated time and conversation. So do relationships with other children. If one partner says (and means) that they have no time to put into their partner or other children, the relationship may be in trouble.

Money can become a flashpoint. Money is never unimportant. And when it comes to autism, there is literally no limit to how much money parents could spend. That's because there is no known cure for autism, and (in most cases) no way to know whether a therapy, program, or educational placement might possibly be helpful. Thus, it is not unusual for parents to disagree on how much to spend, on what, for how long, at what cost to a family's present or future security.

Should you quit your job to manage autism therapies? Should you mortgage the house to pay for an autism-specific private school? Spend your retirement savings on a new therapy? Use your other child's college fund to pay for a therapeutic camp? There is no way to both spend money and not spend money at the same time.

Energy is at a premium. Many parents find autism exhausting. With the work it takes to get their child up and dressed plus the stress of managing their child's school, therapies, doctors, and special programs, added to the difficulty of managing autistic behaviors and meltdowns, there's nothing left at the end of the day. When this happens, partnerships and marriages can unravel.

Some couples make it work by finding support from family or community. An occasional date night, financial support, or just a shoulder to cry on can help relieve the stress. The key is to ask for help when you need it, rather than simply toughing it out.

A Word From Verywell

While it's easy to ignore or sidestep differences as they develop, such differences can be the source of serious challenges to a marriage or partnership. The key to avoiding such challenges is communication and—at least at some level—collaboration. A little help from friends and family can also go a long way to reduce stress levels and find the time and energy to reconnect.

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