“Before you break something apart, it helps to know how it hangs together.”
— a quote from SEED magazine regarding art and science and the contributions art can make before distilling the neurological nature of being human.
It helps to know what makes a marriage or relationship hang together. The manner in which we build a union between two people can be pinpointed from the moment it begins. Over time, I’ve come to believe that strong foundations for a relationship are built on honesty, sharing, trust, communication, respect, personal character and commitment. These attributes become ever-more important when we decide to start a family. I might suggest, as a woman with some experience, that a serious review of some of these attributes in ourselves as well our partners, and an agreement of some kind, is of prime importance before starting a family.
Instead we get swept up, probably because most of us are young, in the idea of what a marriage should be instead of looking at the practicalities of construction. Naively, we come to believe that having a baby is romantic and naturally, all we want to do is proliferate the romance. In an age where we are encouraged, and should to some degree, go with the flow, we may have swung too far. Perhaps we do not consider our partners in construction carefully enough because it seems too “business-like.” Yet real life seems to be that fine balance between the two. As the saying goes, all we have at the end are the relationships we’ve built, and might I add, maintained. In a society that values Individualism, it seems to me that many of us have forgotten that it takes a community to not only raise a child, but to also sustain us as adults, so we better be paying attention to how and what we build. As Thoreau said, “build [those] castles in the sky…” but it helps to place the foundations under them. It behooves us to try our best to ensure they are strong.
Let me clarify here that I am a woman writing in retrospect as I am now a single mother of an autistic child. I’ve seen that when relationships fall apart, we blame it on other things. No matter what, external factors will impact a life and a marriage — illness, disability, death and other unfortunate occurrences. We hear it in the marriage vows (for better or for worse, in sickness and in health), yet it seems few of us care to consider the meaning of those words which, in my view, can apply to our friendships and other types of partnerships. I mean, no one can really scoff at those marriage vows even if one doesn’t believe in the institution. We all want someone to see us for who we are, and to love us until the end. Yet, sometimes the two people who came together with the best of intentions cannot endure the stress and do not function well as a team when challenged. In an era of extreme autism fascination and fear we can be ultimately challenged. As such, it is also assumed, and often written, that autism is a main cause of divorce. The unknowing, innocent autistic child is then targeted by society as a result, and it is yet one more reason added to an exhaustive list of why we must cure and change the autistic child as quickly as possible. Instead of considering that all children are a test — that in fact, all of life is one big test — we yet again blame the autism.
I have always found the idea of blaming the autistic child for the deterioration of marriage as something unfair to autistic people. Yet, when my own marriage ended, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of those ideas behind the eighty per-cent divorce rates and autism might even in some small way be true. There can be more stress because our children have atypical needs that are not easily accommodated in our communities. In North America, we are still in the process of legislating what the rights of disabled (including autistic) people must be. We have acknowledged that the rights of autistic people are about thirty years behind of how we regard and grant rights to people with other disabilities. In other words, there is still a journey ahead.
As a parent also living in an age when governments do not understand autism and the accommodations autistic people need to contribute as autistic people, there is more stress when we have to fight to get our kids into schools, obtain financial support, acquire respite help, augmentative communication devices, social skills and vocational training and later, appropriate housing accommodations, access to community colleges and universities with aides and supports that allow our adult children to continue to learn and contribute. By default, we’ve become activists, advocates by no choice of our own. Daily, in some way shape or form, we always seem to be negotiating prejudice in order to get our children and our families what they need. Yes, it can be exhausting in the beginning. I believe all parents need to pace themselves for like life, the journey is long.
I’ve heard that some spouses complain about mothers (let me clarify that the bulk of writings on the topic seem to address the mothers) who take on such a role. “If only the child was “normal,” then the mother would be able to attend to her husband more often. I’ve also heard single moms of more than one autistic child claim that their entire identities are entwined in autism, and as you can see from the laundry list above, it is with good reason. Further, some families that are mixed with typical and autistic children also seem to experience more stress because the autistic child is held up against the typical one and there might be some unhealthy comparisons. As a mother of only one child, I have to consider that some of my stress may be alleviated by the fact that I know of no other way to live. I have no other child to compare mine against. I consider this one of my many blessings.
It might be true that some husbands (and this can also apply to mothers, I do not wish to target husbands, so let me clarify this here even if I do state either “fathers” or “mothers”) do not care to participate in the intensive initial learning curve of raising an autistic child. It is true that some partners bail and leave the brunt of the work to the mother. It is true that in the first years after a diagnosis, and in our new age of autism fascination and fear, autism required a lot of reading, research and self-enquiry. Yet, life evolves, our children mature and we move beyond that “crisis” phase. One can only hope that our partners will hang on until we get there. Still, blaming the mother for the failed marriage is an old idea — we’re either as cold-as-ice- Bettelheim- Refrigerator-Mothers or we are terrible wives. Misogynistic ideas flagellate us and the ideas run so deep they are tough to beat. While there are single mothers truly struggling and are in need of respite, access to services and financial support, I also suggest that these are the caregivers who should be at the top of the list for such support. For after all, it is true that if a mother does not explore herself and her own needs, she will not be able to give herself to her family.
I also think there are all kinds of mothers, those with special needs or typical children. Some are the ones always carpooling, always talking about their children at social functions — forgive me please if you are one of them for it’s your right, but it’s just not my style. Although I spoke a lot about autism in the early years as I tried to figure it out for myself, and I often write about my son on my blog, I do not always wish to talk about him or about autism and I never wanted a bucket full of kids. In short, I’ve seen more women of typical children get so caught up in their motherhood roles that I find it so ironic that mothers of autistic children get blamed for failed marriages because we get so involved in our “autistic” children’s lives! Indirectly of course, the autism, or autistic child is also blamed. In all of my years I’ve tried to always enjoy my passions, even if I’ve had to sometimes put them on hold at various points in my life. Even while my autistic child is a huge source of happiness for me, I recognize that in order to be a good mother, I have to explore and live my own life. I believe that by being my non-super-mom (hence the lack of carpooling) very basic self, I am setting a good example for my son. Mothers of autistic children are also professors and other professionals with successful partnerships and marriages and others are struggling to care for the children on their own while trying to make ends meet. Like everyone, we are also a diverse community. No matter where we are at, finding the balance is an art we seem to always be working at.
A new study debunks the incorrect divorce rate and some of the assumptions that we have mustered that belong to the myth. Dr. Brian Freedman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute found that a child’s autism “had no effect on the family structure.” In fact, he found that 64 per cent of children with autism belong to a family with two married biological or adoptive parents compared to 65 per cent of children who do not have ASD. Freedman’s study acknowledges that parenting an autistic child may be more stressful and it may put pressure on the marriage, which he found in past studies. As I looked back to reference this, I found one executed in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Vol. 19, No. 1, 1989): Brief Report: Psychological Effects of Parenting Stress on Parents of Autistic Children (Wolf, Noh, Fisman, Speechly). What was noteworthy to me in this study was an assumption that parents felt that their own personal goals were delayed or forfeited (Kohut, 1966), disappointments with delayed developmental milestones (Howard, 1978), worry regarding future self-sufficiency (Wing, 1985; Wolf & Goldberg, 1986), and the unpredictable, ambiguous nature of autism as important sources of life stress that impose physical and emotional strains on parents exceeding levels experienced by parents of normal children (Bristol & Schopler, 1984; Korn, Chess, & Fernandez, 1978). Freedman seems to have used these assumptions when citing that parents of autistic children suffer a greater amount of stress than parents of children with Down Syndrome or typical children; that mothers report more depression and fathers deal with stress by distancing themselves and becoming less involved with the family. (Source: Kennedy Krieger Institute).
Yet, in an analysis of the National Survey of Children’s Health, data showed that other factors can contribute to divorce, “such has having a child with particularly challenging behaviors with and without autism [bold mine]. For some families, the challenges of parenting a child with special needs may indeed result in straining the marriage to the breaking point.” Freedman wishes to conduct more longitudinal studies to find out how relationships can survive such stressors and what factors may enable the successful marriage. Alison Singer, founder of The Autism Science Foundation agrees that it would be helpful to find the “net stress reducers,” for families, noting also that the 80% divorce-rate myth may have added to our stress as parents and marriage partners.
It might help to add here that Canadian researcher Lonnie Zwaigenbaum in his paper A Qualitative Investigation of Changes in the Belief Systems of Families of Children With Autism or Down Syndrome (Child: Care, Health and Development, 2006,32: 353-369) concluded that families with autistic and Down syndrome children resulted in a reconstruction of values, expectations and actually added to a sense of overall happiness and joy. His team noted that most families believed that their children improved their quality of life. I will concur. Having an autistic child, even with the challenges, has brought me down to earth and made me appreciate many more aspects and people that are currently in my life. My son Adam has been my most profound teacher in helping me see not only the realities of life, but in living with them to the best possible degree.
Still, I thought it really important to discover why so many people believe that families with autistic children in them, are subject to higher divorce rates. They seem to be based in our beliefs and fears, whether they are real or not. We are told many negative things when we first hear the word autism and the idea of having a difficult marriage is not a welcome message. As a single parent, I also have to consider what of those negative messages permeate societal thoughts and the potential for future relationships as society (and potential partners within it) believes that life is so hard for us that we do not have time for the pursuit of happiness.
We learned the extraordinary lengths we would have to take to help or “cure” our children — the strain on our financial resources and time — but the future, even with such investments, looked uncertain. When I consider stress, I have to account for some of the images I have had in my own journey, particularly the early ones. Thoughts like: thwarted dreams, a curbed schedule, shiny white hospitals with fluorescent lights, and spare cots (as seen in the neglected institutions of the 1960’s) popped into my head as I lay putting my autistic son to bed, his hair still baby-soft and face so sweet. The images did not fit with my reality, yet, I wondered how these haunted thoughts would effect the way I dealt with my son. Those images collide against the perfect Hollywood glam of serial daters and spouses with their perfectly coiffed children in gleaming black limousines. Let me quickly add that you will find me often blaming Hollywood for our warped self-images.
By taking a serious look at these narratives and images, it is possible to come back down to reality and back away from feelings of doom. Not only do I know my marriage did not dissolve because of my autistic child, but I became interested in the underlying fears that may prohibit some people from believing that future relationships with autistic children are possible. In other words, I think there is a correlation between our idea that autistic families must have higher divorce rates because,
– we believe we suffer more stress because we feel we devote much more time to the autistic child than the neurotypical child, possibly without considering the issues that many typical children have that can also put a strain on marriages and the outcome of all children is uncertain;
– we have automatically concluded without further inquiry into our belief systems, that single parents of autistic children have it tougher and therefore have less time for current or future relationships (as compared to families with typical children);
– and that our historical view of the disabled as asexual non persons is inherited in how we view ourselves as parents and human beings.
The stigma facing the disabled community still lingers. We see a person with real physical or cognitive issues, and a slew of ideas and images cross our minds. I find it helps to always catch myself in these moments of thought and question the immediately. It’s not that most of us really know anything about the disabled person’s life, for many of us have never had a family member or lived with a disability. History continues to pulse through our veins and when we view disabled persons, we think of institutions, hardship and poverty — not the typical attractive traits we think of when exploring sexual relationships.
In autism in particular, we are all too familiar with the head-banging narrative. It was the first thing we envisioned when we heard the word AUTISM. Whether our children were diagnosed at the age of two, three, four or beyond, that very word altered our perspectives of both our children, and our futures. I can think of no image associated with a word more powerful in my lifetime. It takes so much time and self enquiry to unravel the fear and begin to find that balance again. In addition to unraveling and reconstructing our expectations for our children, we need time to discover what we need as parents to live a full and “balanced” life. As a newly single parent who has spent two years thinking hard about this, I can think of nothing as important as taking care of myself and having an important relationship (one can be happy being single — everyone has to find their own path, of course) as not only setting the right example for my autistic child, but for my own happiness which is as much as my right to have as it is my son’s.
It is said that the most successful people in life are the ones who are most adaptable. We are put to the test time and again. We try to build strong foundations and sometimes the end result doesn’t turn out the way we expect. So we keep trying. I’ve given myself some space and time to create a positive atmosphere and peace around myself and my son. This painful time has been precious and with every day comes an awareness that life is neither perfect nor predictable. We cannot predict the outcome of the autistic or the typical child, as much as we would like to think that we can and for that reason I believe things are meant to fall apart so we can rebuild them again with more wisdom and a healthier outlook. I share this story in hopes that we can all exchange our experiences and become a little wiser. Today, we are so fortunate to have the benefit of more autistic adults showing us what they need to contribute to society. We have more positive examples to live by and this by its very nature gives parents more hope. I find it quite relieving to see that there is a sort of “normal” path of autistic development. We are made more aware of the stigma that influences our thinking and can choose to move away from it.
The outcome of divorce and lack of support can fall on single parents with all kinds of children. Yes, autistic children need more support in a world that doesn’t value them as they are. In a recent conference called Autism, Ethics and Society, based in the U.K., the introduction to the sessions read: “Autism is a common [italics mine] neurodevelopmental condition that has dramatically captured attention in the last decade.” While there is much concern about further stigma regarding genetic testing and other scientific discoveries, there is comfort in common-ness, commune and community. Might we be coming to a new decade where autism isn’t as scary and we as parents receive more moral and practical support (like getting into schools), that ease the mental stress that seems to going along with both marriage and single parenting? I definitely believe that along with new people that will come into our lives, this is the new frontier for Adam and myself. At least it’s my castle in the sky. I’m in the process of rebuilding the foundation underneath it.
A little postscript today: After writing this, I received a note from Adam’s camp counsellors describing him. It says, “Adam brings charm to the senior 24 group. Like the gentle Snorlax Pokeman, he maintains peace with everyone and shows a love for nature. If it was not for him, we would have never found all the golden eggs.” All I can say is….exactly.