It’s no secret that the emotional and financial strain of raising a child on the autistic spectrum challenges even the strongest marriages. The divorce rate for parents of ASD kids is 23%, compared with 13.8% for parents of neurotypical kids over age 10. The good news is: the myth of an 80% divorce rate for parents of ASD kids has been debunked.
While every autism family has different needs and challenges, here are some key ways that my husband and I kept our intimacy alive during the toughest years of raising twins with special needs.
1. Couple Time. Carve out “date” time, at least once a week. I cannot emphasize this enough. Plan a special dinner, movie, or walk, play tennis, or take fencing lessons together. (Yes, I know a happily married couple with a special needs daughter who engage in weekly swordplay!) When our twins were young, my husband and I always reserved Saturday nights for peaceful, private dinners out. During an especially difficult period, we added a quick Wednesday supper in the neighborhood.
My husband and I also prioritized babysitters over other expenses; since our extended family is small, there was no other way we could get time alone. If you’re lucky enough to have caring family members, their help and support can be crucial to creating couple time. Alternately, you can reach out to the autism community in your neighborhood and take turns with other parents of ASD kids so everyone gets some precious couple time. Another idea is to contact a local college to see if students in education or psychology are interesting in volunteering to spend time with your child in return for credit.
2. Spouses on the Same Page. One main reason my marriage survived in the face of special needs twins—one with autism and the other with ADHD—is because my husband and I both agreed to put our kids first. If either of us had been jealous or resentful (of the attention and financial resources devoted to our twins), I don’t think we’d have survived as a couple.
Although we didn’t always agree on therapies or how much to spend on them, both of us were willing to work through conflicts and make the sacrifices necessary for providing the best and most supportive environment for our kids. Good thing we did, because it turns out that parents of ADHD kids are twice as likely to divorce by the time a child reaches 8 years old as those with neurotypical children; and parents of kids with twins or triplets have a 17% higher chance of divorce than families where kids have age gaps. I believe it’s essential to dedicate the time and space to work on child rearing issues and present a united front. Otherwise it’s all too easy for kids with special needs to wear one parent down.
3. Special Time for the Neurotypical Sibs. Siblings of ASD kids often feel resentful and envious of extra attention given to their needier and more demanding sister or brother. While it’s nearly impossible to “even things out,” your neurotypical child will appreciate having alone time with mom or dad. When my son was little, I took him for “surprise days” once a week. Sometimes we went to see dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History; we also shopped for Pokémon cards and climbed small trees in Central Park (his favorite)! At age 25, my son says those surprise days with me are among his happiest memories, right alongside the times his dad played ball with him.
4. Role Model. Everyone wants to set a good example for their kids, whether or not they have special needs. If you want your kids to express their strong opinions appropriately, deal with bullies, and advocate for themselves, it’s a good idea to model those behaviors with your partner. Likewise, if parents exercise and practice healthy eating habits, chances are good their children will follow suit.
5. Shared Laughter. Humor can be the glue that helps couples and families stay together. Although my daughter couldn’t enjoy clowns or sophisticated verbal jokes, my husband discovered that she loved slapstick. For years, our family watched “The Three Stooges”and laughed together. My husband and I still cherish the memories of our daughter, cackling with glee when the Stooges planted mice in an apartment so they could get work as exterminators. By coincidence, our own apartment had been under siege by mice at the time, and I’d been utterly horrified! Being able to laugh together helped our family overcome more serious and chronic problems than mouse infestation. Memories of laughing together proved to be the best medicine for my marriage and my family.