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Today Show website post: Autism and the Single Mom


Divorce after autism: Why do dads leave?


Autism and the single mom: Hannah Brown, author of “If I Could Tell You,” with her children.

By Hannah Brown

One thing you need to know about parenting a child with autism is that it’s very likely the mother of an autistic kid is a single mom.

At least, that’s certainly how it seems from my perspective and that of almost all the other moms I know. When my son Danny was first diagnosed, in 1999, a social worker told me that 80 percent of all parents of autistic children get divorced.

I’ve heard that 80 percent statistic many, many times over the years, in autism parenting circles, in media reports and at conferences. It certainly seemed to make sense. When my marriage broke up when Danny was 11, the director at the center where my son gets treatment told me, “That’s the fourth father who’s left this month.” When I quoted the 80 percent statistic, he said it had to be too low: “The dads hardly ever stick around.”



So I was surprised to learn that statistic isn’t true. A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that parents of autistic children have only a slightly higher chance of divorcing than the general population. The 2010 study caused a flurry of stories, like this blog post from OpenSalon.com, that debunk the 80 percent figure.

Perhaps it’s an urban autism legend, then, but it’s one that certainly has always reflected the reality I have lived since my son was diagnosed.

Related: Outgrowing autism? Study looks at why some kids “bloom”

We’re all divorced (except my two friends from strictly religious backgrounds). We’ve all consoled each other as our marriages broke up, and edited each other’s online dating profiles when the time came. But to describe our situations more accurately, I would say not that we got divorced, but that our kids’ fathers left and divorced us.

Now, if you are the single father of a child with autism who is raising that kid on his own, I apologize. But in the 12 years since my son was diagnosed with autism, I have yet to see a family in which the father stayed to raise the autistic child and the mother left.

People ask whether Danny’s autism was “the reason” my marriage ended, and I honestly don’t know. I do know that it’s rare that a father says he is leaving because he can’t deal with the child’s disability. There are always dozens of reasons why a marriage fails. But whatever the reasons, the fathers of the autistic kids move on. They have new lives. Often, they have new kids.

But most of us moms just get the one life. And the one set of kids. The only mothers of autistic children I’ve seen remarry were in their mid-20s when they divorced, young enough to have more children with a new husband or partner. I was 45 when my ex-husband moved out. But I’m in no position to complain. My ex has a new family, but he pays child support and for autism treatments – many of my friends haven’t been so lucky.

Courtesy Hannah Brown

“If I Could Tell You,” by Hannah Brown, a novel about parents of children with autism.

Divorce is never easy on children, however, and it’s especially hard on autistic children. They feel all the emotional confusion surrounding a divorce that typically-developing kids do, but can rarely voice their anxieties. And if ever any children needed two parents around the house, it’s those with autism. But many of them don’t get that.

If I had known when Danny was first diagnosed that I would be on my own with him and his younger brother a few years later, I would have been crushed. But in the end, the stress of having a partner who is unhappy being in your house is worse than the strain of being alone. Still, I often wish for my children’s sake that I had found a way to make it work.

There are all kinds of surprises involved in raising an autistic child, and many are unpleasant. I’ll share one that breaks my heart: Even though Danny’s 15 now, he still cries like a much younger child on the nights when he doesn’t see his father.

But then there are the unexpected moments of happiness. Danny never got the memo that said that autistic kids don’t have empathy. When I am stressed out, he is often the first to notice and give me a hug.

I guess the biggest surprise is the most obvious one — I don’t love him any less than I would if he were an ordinary kid. When he smiles at me, I melt, just the way any other mother does with any other kid.

And I would never have guessed that I could handle raising my kids on my own. But here I am, handling it. I think the key difference in raising an autistic child is that the highs are higher and the lows are lower.

Recently, we had one of those highs. Danny still repeats phrases from books he loves. One day when I was having a hard time parallel parking the car, I scolded myself out loud. He came out with a line from One Fish, Two Fish, by Dr. Seuss: “We are not too bad, you know.”

If my family had a crest, that would be our motto.

Hannah Brown is the author of the novel, If I Could Tell You, about raising autistic children, published by Vantage Point Books this month. You can read an excerpt at www.hannahbrownbooks.com


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