Somewhere in between: the truth and fiction behind autism and divorce rates

Filed Under (Acceptance, Celebrity Advocacy, Family, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 04-01-2010

I feel manipulated. Not by a person, but by the many messages I am getting about autism and high divorce rates. Imagine me now looking through new eyes. Adam’s dad and I have been separated for little over a year now. Last night on TVO aired Autism The Musical and the BBC production of The Autism Puzzle (the latter which I found to be a good documentary…it is the second time I’ve watched it) and today on CNN (again) I am confronted with a deluge of autism media and I am sitting in my bed, alone, weeping, laughing at myself — weeping again. I might look to an outsider like Meg Ryan in some Hollywood romantic comedy. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Autism The Musical. It’s just that I have to think critically of how a general public might view some of the very real comments — so real they made me weep. Take a look at this story before continuing to read:

Lisa Jo Rudy of About.com on all things autism (an autism mom herself) also recollects about Adam’s dad (from the movie — not my Adam):“Adam’s dad, now estranged from his mom, is bitter because of his wife’s obsession with Adam’s autism. Mom, meanwhile, spins out of control when she thinks her son’s cello solo will be cut from the final musical production.”Adam’s dad (in the film) suggests that he believes all autism moms suffer divorce because they are scrounging every ounce of information for the benefit of the child. Adam’s mom and dad are still together during the filming and the mom discusses how dad has had a long-standing affair, and she is clearly overstressed and bitter and I understand all of that.

As I’ve said, I’m looking through different eyes now. Yes, Adam didn’t sleep and I was so grossly sleep deprived. Yes, I was obsessed with finding out every ounce of information in a world that doesn’t accept autism. As a mother who loves their child (or a father — think Robert Hughes, Ralph Savarese among hundreds of other incredibly dedicated dads), this was the obvious choice. As an educated person, I read and study…and go back to university to get a degree in Critical Disability Studies. It is my way of dealing with things. I have a need to help Adam in this world that still does not offer enough programs, services, care, respect and inclusion. And I’m choosing to accept the choice with open arms. I’m choosing to move forward and continue learning from all the lessons on this autism journey.

Truth about divorce lies somewhere between anecdote and statistics. While I have compassion and I feel that this is so real for so many families, I have to question if we are all being manipulated. I am thinking of Jenny McCarthy and her story of feeling alone in her marriage with her autistic child. I think many parents feel alone when they are researching and searching for scarce programs — indeed there is a feeling of isolation that sometimes even extended family members will never understand. I remember the Autism Everyday Video and how the number “eighty percent of all autism marriages end in divorce” was thrown out as a matter of fact, rather than what it is — speculation. I spoke out about the “wanting to drive off the George Washington bridge” with the autistic child comment because it was used in a campaign to raise money for autism by making autism look terrible, not because I don’t believe or do not have compassion for the moments when some parent may be in a moment of despair. It’s all real, you see. The divorce is real too. Some partners do not want to deal with the responsibilities of raising children — particularly disabled children. Some partners do not leave just because of autism. The problem with using these stories in autism promotion videos is that it is used to sway our feelings about autistic people in particular. It uses autistic people as a crutch for the gamut of natural human emotion. People with non-disabled children also get divorced. People with non-disabled children also do unspeakable acts to their children. It is simply not fair to blame autism or disability as the cause for despair and divorce.

There may be some truth to divorce and disability, but statistics don’t necessarily agree. Apparently divorce rates, according to Kristina Chew’s article, are down and I’m particularly concerned when disability is used as the sole reason for a divorce. Kristina also writes: “Citing autism as the reason for a marriage failing can be seen as yet another reason for saying why autism is so awful. Taking care of Charlie is a privilege but it is not always easy. Childcare arrangements are a constant juggling act for Jim and me and we tend always to think of Charlie’s needs first, and of each other’s after that. We both agree that it should be this way. Jim and I would much prefer living closer to New York City due to our jobs but Charlie’s education comes first. We left the house that we planned to live in for 30 years in order that Charlie could have the right school placement. (And until this September we were living with my in-laws, which was very, if not too, interesting at times.) Jim and I have made many of our choices based on ‘what Charlie needs’ rather than on what would be best for the two of us and I do hope that, ultimately this will be best for the three of us.”

It doesn’t matter what stressors are involved in marriage — the more there are, the more vulnerable a marriage becomes. Some couples manage to work together, some do not. Sometimes, when the marriage is done and some of the stressors are gone, parents become better at working together. Sometimes challenges bring couples closer together. There is no magic formula and there are no right or wrong answers. Is raising a child with a disability more challenging? Absolutely. Should it be blamed for divorce? No.

What we need along with the compassion is to look at our sorry weeping selves in the mirror to ask analytical questions. Who is producing the video? Is it a real story or is a fundraising video? What is it asking us to believe? Does it pull on our heart-strings to sell copies? Telling truth means that the conclusions are not necessarily clear — at least not for public consumption. I for one, will not blame autism or Adam for my marital situation, even when day-to-day life is not always easy. In her article Genie In A Bottle, Shelley Hendrix in HuffPo discusses divorce, emotion and her autistic son: “For a very simple reason over the last six years, I have clung to the hope that my son Liam was insulated from the emotional distress that can envelope a child when their parents divorce. He has autism.

For once, I had hoped that his exceptionality was a perk, protecting his innocence and preserving his heart. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. With his nonverbal days behind him and his growing conversational skills he can express himself, just like any other child that experiences divorce.

His message this summer? He desperately misses the unified family that he once had. His questions and comments mirror the conversations I have had with his younger sister throughout the years. Is it his fault? Why can’t we get back together? Why did you get a divorce? Did you love daddy? Did he love you?.”

I worry like any other parent during a time of divorce. I too want to protect Adam, as all children of divorce seem to do, from blaming himself. I am particularly aware of how he manifests anxiety and worry that it’s because of divorce — and as autistic children are not unaffected, I must assume that there are days when his head wonders what the heck has happened. One day, like Liam, he may be able to tell me so, and I don’t think anyone should underestimate the effects of divorce on the autistic child just because that child seems happy all the time, or cannot talk, or does not appear to be aware of what’s going on.

Two adults are responsible for making it (or not) and society is also responsible for supporting marriage and families — particularly families who have more on their plates because of the lack of community supports. (And uh hum — who is going to want to provide supports when people — as the woman interviewed – discuss autism as worse than getting a root canal?!) Two divorced adults are also responsible for making transitions in life for the autistic child as smooth as possible, while respecting the child’s need to express their concerns which are manifested by anxiety (and we know as autism parents that anxiety doesn’t always look anxious, but also hyper). Adults are responsible for taking the responsibility. There is no easy answer for our lives in marriage or divorce; no predictions.

The work I must do for Adam still sits in front of me. The assistance he may require in his adult years is likely. I look at it this way: when a marriage ends there are new opportunities — to build strength and hopefully cooperation. Right now, as I myself am going through this new transition I have yet another opportunity to look at pity in the eye and step forward proudly with my autistic child.

Of course I would not be human if I did not wonder if more support, programs and information would have lessened the time I spent assisting Adam, coordinating his teams, his school requirements, his IEP, his communication devices and needs, playgroups… Would I have done things differently if there was more support out there? If I had had more sleep? This is a question I cannot yet answer. All I can say for now is that it was a choice grown from love and devotion. Choices have consequences and rewards. I don’t blame autism. I don’t blame a person. It’s what was meant to happen. The work we do today, I believe, may help others tomorrow. Adam, for one, will know that he is valued and that I valued the time I was married to his father. I value the lessons we continue to learn and the many joys and struggles on our journey.

I started the Joy of Autism blog in 2005 with the support of my then-husband who told me to “start a blog” not unlike Julia’s husband in Julia and Julia. He apparently believed that, like Julia, I “have thoughts.” :) He supported the work I did for The Autism Acceptance Project. But life, as they say, is “complicated.” Here we are. Who would believe that I think that even all of this is a gift?

I do. Now, on with the future.

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.