How Parenting a Child With Autism Can Strain a Marriage

Parenting a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be challenging, frustrating, and stressful for all involved. Autism in children often leads to disagreements about the best treatments, the validity of a diagnosis, and how much time and money to devote to the child.

For some couples, the process of addressing and resolving these issues leads to a stronger bond. For others, however, the stress can take a real toll on the relationship. In fact, research shows that parenting a child with autism is associated with increased marital conflicts.

Here are five conflicts that parents of a child with ASD might experience, and what you can do about it.

A couple sitting down looking angry
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You Don't Have the Same Concerns About Your Child's Development

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

These kinds of observations are not easy for any parent to hear, and it's not uncommon for each parent to have a very different response. One parent, for example, may become defensive or dismissive, or another becomes overly concerned, watching for every unusual behavior or developmental delay. One may insist on taking the child to be evaluated, while the other ignores the issue.

You Handle the Challenges of Autism Differently

Children with ASD are different from one another and different from 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 can be overwhelming and upsetting.

It takes energy and imagination to figure out how to engage with a child on the autism spectrum, and the process can be exhausting. It can be tempting for a parent who has more patience and is able to more easily connect with the child to assume most of the responsibility. If they don't mind doing it, that may be best, and the other parent may feel relieved. However, the more involved parent may become resentful over time, and parents who should be working as a "team" may grow apart.

Even if one parent tends to take on most of the responsibility, it's important for the other parent to spend quality time with their child for the sake of all involved.

Several studies have reported an increase in psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, decreased family cohesion, and burnout, among caregivers of children with ASD as compared to caregivers of children with other developmental disabilities.

You Disagree About Treatments

When a child has a straightforward medical diagnosis, the options for treatment tend to be straightforward as well, making it easy for parents to be on the same page. But there is nothing straightforward about autism treatment.

For one thing, the definition of what qualifies for a diagnosis of ASD has changed dramatically over time. As of 2013, when the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was published, the same diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is given to children with a wide variation of symptom severity levels. Children with ASD include those who are high-functioning, low-functioning, and anywhere between.

Hence, there is no one-size-fits all treatment for ASD, and no "cure." Options include a variety of well-researched, proven therapies and medications, as well as unproven treatments that can be risky. One parent may want to stick with conservative measures, while the other is interested in exploring new options.

Another area of potential disagreement is which kind of educational setting is best for your child. Some parents may want their child to be "mainstreamed" with neurotypical children in a public school, while others believe they would do best in an autism-only or private school.

You Become an Autism Expert While Your Partner Avoids the Topic

If one parent—often the mother—is the primary caregiver, that parent often starts off as the person who learns about autism first. They are the one who talks with teachers, meets developmental pediatricians, and arranges for evaluations.

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.

All this can make it difficult for partners who are not primary caregivers to jump in and take equal responsibility for their child. If one parent claims responsibility and authority, the other one may feel like an outsider. They may take responsibility for typically developing siblings or household chores while remaining somewhat in the dark about what their partner and child with ASD are up to.

You Don't Agree About How Much Time and Money to Devote to Your Child

Raising an autistic child is time-consuming and expensive. As the parent of a child with ASD, you will need to attend special education meetings, meet with teachers and therapists, and, in some cases, spend time researching treatment and school options.

Not all therapies are covered by insurance, and if you opt to send your child to a private school, you'll likely have to cover a hefty tuition fee.

You may wonder if it makes sense to quit your job to manage autism therapies, mortgage the house to pay for an autism-specific private school, or dip into your other child's college fund to pay for a therapeutic camp. It is not unusual for parents to disagree on how much to spend, on what, for how long, and at what cost to a family's present or future security.

Relationship-Saving Strategies

The key to preserving a good relationship is to keep the lines of communication open. Even if you disagree with your spouse or partner, it's important to listen to their opinions and to why they feel strongly about what is best for the child.

Also, while it may seem easier to divide and conquer, couples should work hard to share and collaborate on things concerning their child whenever possible. Children with autism need consistency, and showing them a "unified front" is beneficial.

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. Another thing to consider is respite care. The key is to ask for help when you need it, rather than simply toughing it out.

Ultimately, both parents want what's best for their autistic child, and everyone will benefit when parents have a strong relationship. Learning to compromise and find common ground will allow you appreciate your child's strengths, while also ensuring they get the help they need to function effectively at home, at school, and in the community.

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  2. Nik Adib NA, Ibrahim MI, Ab Rahman A, et al. Perceived stress among caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder: A state-wide studyInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(8):1468. doi:10.3390/ijerph16081468

  3. Lenovich Z. The evolution of 'autism' as a diagnosis, explained. Spectrum News. May 2018.

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