Special Needs
Special Needs

What are the Divorce Rates Among Autism Families?

| by Kev Leitch
From Left Brain Right Brain | By Do'C

Let’s set aside the fact the this is a very poorly worded question, and let’s just go with the notion that is likely to be pondered by typical peeps on the street – what is the divorce rate among couples who have a child (or children) with some sort of autism spectrum ‘disorder’ diagnosis?

Many bloggers have apparently attempted to look somewhat earnestly at the question – and they often come up empty handed:

Lisa Jo Rudy
“But so far as I can tell, having researched the topic in all the usual places plus a few more (personal connections to reearchers in the autism community), there is no basis for these claims.”

Kristina Chew
“While I have often seen the figure of 80-85% referred to, I have not found a good source for this figure.”

Patricia Robinson
“I can’t find a study that shows that rate.”

But for everyone of those who don’t turn anything up, there appears to be a glut of what looks more and more like internet urban legend similar to the following:

On Oprah
“The stress of raising an autistic child also takes a toll on many marriages. Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy organization, reports that the divorce rate within the autism community is staggering. According to their research, 80 percent of all marriages end.”

I have news for Autism Speaks – 100% of all marriages end, eventually.

In all practicality, there are probably way too many internet discussion forum threads, blog articles, and statements from anti-autism advocacy organizations to really quantify, so I’m not even going to pretend to try. Heck, this is probably one reason this particular urban legend persists – the fallacious logic of appeal to popularity can be strong with the masses.

Let’s just round out that fallacious logic, of truth due to popularity, with a comment from botulinum toxin injection-loving Jenny McCarthy, which is really not much more than ascribing importance to her personal experience (appeal to anecdote).

Soon after Evan’s diagnosis, Jenny says the stress of raising a child with autism began to take a toll on her marriage. An autism advocacy organization reports that the divorce rate within the autism community is staggering. According to its research, 80 percent of all marriages end.

“I believe it, because I lived it,” she says. “I felt very alone in my marriage.”

Well if Jenny believes it, it must be true (and especially so, since she apparently said this on the Oprah show).  ;)

Okay, enough already. It’s clear that there is probably a lack of real quantifiable information “out there” about divorce among families with autistic children.

However, Easter Seals (in conjunction with the Austism Society of America) did look at the question (quite recently I might add: July, 2008 – Report Published in December, 2008) as part of a larger “Living With Autism” study. You can download the report (registration required) here.

Even autism super sleuth, Kim Stagliano, over at AoA noted this ‘research’ when it dropped (apparently whining about unsurprising content):

“Click HERE to read more useless information that any parent of an autistic child would have told you for a large coffee and 15 minutes of respite time. Is this what we can expect from the partnership of ASA and Easter Seals?”

Kim obviously couldn’t be bothered with some of the report’s details, really didn’t care, or just skimmed the media story, and didn’t even read the actual report (personally, I’m voting for this possibility as likely). Of course it’s also entirely possible that Stagliano’s absence of mention about the divorce rate information in this survey, is due to lack of interest in the subject, or some other reason altogether.

Pleasantly surprising however, following the AoA post, is a small, yet more astute portion of commentary on AoA (yes, you read that correctly), authored by “Gale”:

It also sheds light on an often misreported urban legend of higher divorce rates for families with autism concluding “Families living with autism are significantly less likely to be divorced than families with children without special needs. Among those parents with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder and who have been divorced, only one third say their divorce had anything to do with managing the special needs of their children.

Good on Gale for adding a little to the story here!

So what numbers were actually reported for divorce rates by Easter Seals?

No Special Needs (N=866) 39%
ASD (N=1573) 30%

30% ??? Not only is that 25% lower than the families with no special needs children (the ‘control group’) in this survey, it’s nowhere near the mythical 80% number.

But let’s be clear here. The Easter Seals report, while perhaps interesting, is not a scientific study.

While it is a fairly large survey, and one that contains a sizeable ‘control’ group, it has problems that make it very limited in its ability to lend support for conclusions about reality.

First of all, there is an obvious likelihood of selection bias. The survey respondents were solicited via an e-mail invitation from Easter seals, ASA, or Harris Poll Online, which means the respondents were likely to be already involved (to some degree) with at least one of those organizations (enough to be on some sort of contact list), and regular internet users. The survey respondents may, or may not be truly representative of parents with ASD children. The ‘control’ group may not even necessarily be representative of the parents of children with no special needs (the U.S. divorce rate for married couples with children is probably closer to the U.S. average of 48%).

There is evidence of one possible effect of such selection bias, and that is that this survey’s demographic profiles are not consistent with the most current autism epidemiology at all. A full 55% of the parents of ASD children were reported to be parents of autistic children, as opposed to 45% of the parents whose children were diagnosed with PDD-NOS or Asperger’s. This is fairly divergent from the current descriptive epidemiology which puts Autism at about 33% of the total diagnoses, and 67% for PDD-NOS and Asperger’s combined. Such a skewing toward autism diagnoses could represent any number of things (diagnostic inconsistency for example), but I think it’s certainly possible that selection bias (specifically, “self selection”) is at play here – e.g. parents who are already connected in some way to Easter Seals or ASA, may simply be more likely to be the parents of children with an autism diagnoses, and parental participation in such groups by parents of children with PDD-NOS and Asperger’s diagnoses may be considerably less, because affiliation with such organizations simply may be a lower priority for those parents. If this is the case, it would inadvertently exclude representation of a significant portion of the question’s target parent population. If the question’s target population is not representative, is the information accurate? It’s hard to know.

In the context of a sense of scientific rigor, there just isn’t much here. Surveys, and parent reports are just that, reports. As an example, diagnoses were not confirmed with any standardized and normed instruments that I can see. And, to be fair, scientific answering of the divorce rate question wasn’t really an objective of this survey in the first place.

I realize that a skeptical look at both the urban legend of 80% or higher divorce rates and the reported lower divorce rates from the Easter Seals/ASA survey doesn’t really provide any kind of clear conclusion. There will be those who believe that anti-autism advocacy groups like Autism Speaks have some sort of authority on the subject, and they probably won’t see anything wrong with the perpetuation of what looks more like urban myth for pity. There may also be those who believe that parents of ASD children are less likely to divorce (based on this survey, or their own beliefs), ascribing some sort of family-strengthening magic to having special needs children in and of itself.

As for me, I tend to think the actual divorce rate among autism families is probably pretty close to whatever the average is for all families. All families, and all marriages, have sources of difficulty, conflict, and compromise. They all have good too. Is there any reason to think that parents of ASD children are really that much different than most parents when it comes to divorce overall, one way or the other? So far, I haven’t seen any good scientific evidence to make me think so.

Some readers may think of me as one of the Evil Neurodiverse League of Evil Bloggers, and be wondering why I wouldn’t jump on an opportunity to say that having an autistic child is some awesome family-strengthening thing that makes a man more happily married than a father with typical children. I’m sorry to disappoint in this regard – while possible, and undoubtedly true for some, the science just isn’t out there to support the notion that such a statement is applicable to couples with autistic children in general.