When we get married and say our vows ’until death do us part’ we sincerely mean it. They say when a child is diagnosed with Autism it is like experiencing a death- the grief of the loss of the child you thought you were going to have. The saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger applies to marriages in this instance. When couples grieve together this unexpected blow can bring them closer together, but for some the opposite is true. Denial, blame, withdrawal and isolation creates a Tsunami that comes crashing down on the marriage, leaving devastation in its wake. Death doth do them part.
Stress is experienced by both partners, but in different ways. Mothers, with their nurturing instinct, have been shown to experience greater impact from the child with ASD than fathers(1). Mothers are so adversely affected that many of them have said they have needed counselling and medication as a result(2). When mothers go out into the community with their ASD child, or meet up with friends, they have been shown to be more stigmatized than the fathers(3). It is easier when your child has a physical disability that is visible and obvious. To the untrained eye the child with ASD is just defiant and disobedient, or the parents are thought to need a few tips or workshops to brush up on their parenting skills. The well meaning but ignorant eye of many of the public creates extra stress on the parents, in particular the mothers. Fathers tend to ‘do an ostrich’ and bury their heads in the sand. The phenomenon of escaping to work each day, or refusing to believe there is actually a problem, is common. The greatest effect experienced by fathers was reported to be the stress experienced by their wives. Confrontations, as a result of the child with ASD, place marriages under pressure. It has been reported that one in three families affected by ASD are lone parents(4) and other research has indicated 17% of these families were lone parents(5), compared to the UK national average of 10%.
The purpose of this article is not to paint a picture of doom and gloom, but one of hope! If you are at the beginning of your journey of diagnosis and ASD, be warned of the perils ahead and pull together as a united front. If you are in the midst of the storm and your marriage is close to breaking point, try to understand the other partners’ point of view and recognise that stress makes us do and say things we usually wouldn’t. Forgive!! Make every effort to reverse the damage; don’t be too proud to seek help, even if you feel the other partner is mostly to blame. If there is ‘too much water under the bridge’ and you feel it is better to go your separate ways, and then make a clean start- a new day, a new way. The child/ children will always be a common bond. The grief cycle of: - denial, anger, grief, acceptance -applies to both the ‘loss of your child’ and the loss of your marriage. Accepting that ‘what will be, will be’ helps us to focus on the present.
“Yesterday is but a dream,
Tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
― Kālidāsa, The complete works of Kalidasa
1 Seltzer, M.M. and Kraus, M.W. (2001) Families of adolescents and adults with autism: uncharted territory. In International Review of Research in Mental Retardation, L.M. Glidden, san Diego: Academic Press.
2 Gray, D. (2003) Gender and coping: the parents of high functioning autism. Social Science and Medicine, 56, 631-642.
3 Gray, D. (2003) Gender and coping: the parents of high functioning autism. Social Science and Medicine, 56, 631-642.
4 Bromley, J. (2002) The health and social care needs of families and/or carers supporting a child with autistic spectrum disorders. Manchester Health Authority. Manchester.
5 Broach, S. (2003) Autism: Rights in Reality. London: The National Autistic Society.