When Parents Separate or Divorce: Addressing Issues Concerning A Child with Autism Program Recap

Thank you to Lawrence and Joni Jones for sharing their expertise regarding children with Autism and the impact divorce or separation has onn both the child and the parents.  Divorce or separation can bring up a variety of concerns when a non-Autistic child is involved, but these can be exacerbated when a child with Autism is caught in the middle, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum.

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder of the brain that affects behavior, socialization, social skills, speech, communication, and gross and fine motor skills.  It is a spectrum disorder which means that the symptoms can vary widely, including in their severity.  Therefore, each child will experience the disorder differently and require tailored services or intervention.  While there is no definitive cause or cure for Autism, great strides have been made regarding diagnosis and intervention, giving parents and caregivers more resources and support all for the betterment of the child.

Working Together

The most important aspect regarding divorcing individuals is their amicability and willingness to work together and communicate, especially regarding children.  If parents can peacefully arrive at decisions regarding custody, child support, and more specifically, services for an autistic child, oftentimes agreed upon through mediation, it is oftentimes better for the child since the parents who are most familiar with the needs of the child are at the forefront of the decisions.  If there is too much conflict between the parents, the divorce may go to trial where a judge will determine issues related to custody, child support, parenting time, and possible therapy for the child.

The later situation can be especially impactful for a child with Autism, especially if the judge is responsible for making medical or therapy decisions and does not know the particulars of the child’s condition or is not familiar with Autism.  Also, if one parent is dismissive or refuses to accept the diagnosis, this can lead to the child not receiving the appropriate amount of services or care.

Considerations Regarding Custody

In the eyes of the law, there are two types of custody – residential and legal.  Residential custody refers to where the child resides while legal custody determines who makes all the decisions for the child.  Either of these can be joint with an even split or one parent can have primary custody.  If custody arrangements cannot be agreed upon, separate hearins will be needed to determine these by a judge.  Custody is probably the most difficult part of divorcing while having a child with Autism, especially since residential part may have to revolve around the therapy and other services the child requires.

Routine and structure can be very beneficial for a child with autism and the change caused by divorce, especially related to residential custody, can cause additional hurdles and challenges for the child.  This can cause different demands being placed on the child between school and each parent’s household, creating a lack of consistency that is so important for the development of the child. This can lead to aggression, regression, or slowed improvement in the child’s behavior. However, creating multiple environments through gradual exposure may help the child in the longterm by increasing socialization and exposure.  The ultimate goal is to create an environment for the child where there is as much consistency as possible between the two households.

Other Considerations

There are other considerations related to the separation of parents, especially related to children with autism.  The roles of the parents in the child’s life and routine may change and can be difficult for all parties to adjust to.  For example, one parent may work to provide for all of the expenses while the other serves the role as caregiver, forcing each parent to adjust to new roles and letting go of old ones.  This may require both parties to engage in co-parenting counseling, which many mistake for marriage counseling.  Co-parenting counseling recognizing the marriage is over and focuses on helping parents work through issues to arrive at strategies for working together for the interests of the child.

Child support can be another important consideration for divorced parents of a child with Autism, especially because some services or care may cause additional monetary expenses.  The courts have a chart that is used to determine base child support that takes into consideration each parent’s income.  In the case of a child with special needs, it may be determined that the ordered amount of child support is above the base child support amount, assuming that the parties can afford those services.  However, if the financials of the parents are unable to support the expenditures, the amount of child support may not increase.

If you have any questions regarding child and divorce, or further resources regarding Autism, please contact Lawrence Jones at ljonesesq@aol.com.  You can view a recording of the program at https://youtu.be/iI7SXb2NliQ.  You can download a copy of the handout at https://www.njstatelib.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Autism-and-Divorce-Handout.pdf.