When Divorce and Autism Collide
This post discusses the challenges of going through a divorce while also managing a child’s autism diagnosis. The author for this post has chosen to stay anonymous out of respect for the family. We would like to thank Kristin Erpel Photography for contributing the image to go along with this story.
Parenting a child with autism comes with many highs and lows. Some days are wonderful, and you're amazed by your child and the progress they’ve made. Perhaps you lay down at night overfilled with joy from a day of new goals being met, your child trying a new food, or just the victory in a day of more laughter than tears. Other days are challenging, with meltdowns and battles, and you lay down at night wondering how you will ever wake up and find the strength to do it all over again. It is a roller coaster of emotions, and the stress of it can be particularly overwhelming when you find yourself faced with single parenting.
Single parenting is the kind of situation in life that you just can't prepare for. Maybe you saw your sudden role as a single parent coming. Perhaps you had accepted the autism diagnosis for your child and were embracing therapy while your spouse was still in denial. Perhaps you both couldn't get on the same page about how to handle all of the challenges that were taking over your life. Maybe you even laid down at the end of the day and found yourself questioning what life would be like if you were parenting on your own. Perhaps it would be easier to end your relationship and cut down on the stress in your life. Then again, maybe you had no idea your relationship was about to end. Maybe you thought you and your spouse were on the same page and were prepared to make it through this journey together, no matter how challenging it became. Either way, I don't think you can fully prepare for that moment when your spouse walks out, and you become a single parent to your child on the autism spectrum.
In my case, I have lived through both experiences. When my older child was diagnosed with autism, my husband left within the week. I did not see it coming at all. I knew we were both grieving over the autism diagnosis, but I never thought he would leave because of it. After a few months of separation, the shock of the diagnosis had worn off and my husband was back in our lives and we were willing to put in the work to make our family whole again. Fast forward a few years later and our second child was being referred for an autism diagnosis. Once again, my husband was out the door. This time, I wasn’t as surprised. He hadn't been on board with anything autism related and I figured if he could walk out once before, there was a good chance he could do it again. Nevertheless, it still hurt just the same.
There is no way to describe how you feel in that moment when your spouse walks out the door. The amount of pressure you feel as you lay down for bed that first night alone, knowing that when you wake up in the morning, you will be facing autism and life as a single parent. Parenting a child with autism already can be exhausting, challenging and lonely. Now, doing it on your own without the support and help from your spouse, seems impossible. A million questions will race through your mind. How can I be the sole caregiver to my child every day and night without breaks? How will we make it by financially? How are we going to be okay?
As a parent to a child with autism, you are their advocate, their strength, and their voice. You make their meals and perhaps even feed them still. You bathe them, dress them, brush their teeth and change their diapers. Your days consist of therapy and visual schedules and routines. Your nights can be filled with sleep struggles and endless cups of coffee. Getting up and having the energy to take on autism every day is one of the hardest things you will ever do while your heart is breaking.
However, there is hope. I am here to tell you that you WILL survive it. You and your child/children will find a new routine and you will thrive. You will find strength in places you never knew you had it and you will find ways to carry on every day. You will find the people that truly care about you and you will feel never-ending support. Most importantly, you will find happiness.
Every day I wake up and I am the voice for my two children with non-verbal autism. I know their routines and their schedules. I get them up for school, change their diapers, and get them dressed. I drive them to their therapies and follow through with these practices at home. I find ways to make them happy and take steps to help defuse meltdowns when they occur. I interpret their laughs and cries and modify when needed. There are nights when I am up almost every hour trying to balance their individual sleep issues. I wonder how I will ever have enough rest to function the next day and do it all over again. But every day, I rise and do it all over and hope for the best. The three of us are a team and we are doing great.
Every day my kids and I lean on each other and we survive. I am figuring out this single-autism-mom role as I go along. We live on a tight budget and we make sacrifices and we rely on others for help when we need it. At the end of the day, my children are happy and they know love and acceptance from me, and that’s the most important thing.
If you are one of the many people that find yourself in this position, I am here to tell you to meet this new challenge one day at a time. The strength you have inside will amaze you. You will survive this. Your children will survive this. Happier days will find you soon. Find a schedule and routine that works for you and your children and embrace it. Find your tribe of supportive people in family members, friends, therapists, etc. and don't be afraid to ask for help and breaks when you need it.
But most importantly, take a deep breath. Pour yourself another cup of coffee. You’ve got this. I promise.