Till Autism Do Us Part


Image by George Eastman House via Flickr

Sometimes people really want to make your life better, but don’t know how, and in the process of trying to help they make things that much worse. This applies in a lot of ways to the help offered to families of autistic children. A classic example that I experienced far too often, was of the “let me save your marriage” variety.

Now I’m not saying that having an autistic child isn’t rough on the marriage, of course it is – any extra stresses in a relationship can have a negative impact. And it was (and still is often considered) common knowledge, that parents of autistic children had a remarkably high divorce rate. Back when my son was diagnosed it was cited around 80%, and just the other day someone cited it to me as 90%.

So perhaps I should not be surprised that these agencies (which were all either government-run or at least government-funded) kept asking me about how my relationship with my husband was going, or took any sign of domestic stress as evidence of a flailing marriage. Frankly, if you watch any marriage with the scrutiny that my family has been under since my son’s diagnosis, you’re going to find all sorts of “signs of trouble”. I was frequently encouraged to talk openly about my marriage. “How’s the marriage going?” “Well we’re under stress but we’re hanging in there.” “Would you like to attend counselling?” “No.” I had enough on my plate on a daily (and hourly) basis, without adding in counselling appointments for something I had no interest in talking to strangers about anyway. Still, the pressure to talk, still I’d say no – I don’t have the time, and I’m not interested.

I learnt to just stop talking about how my husband and I were doing when these “helpful” people asked. I began giving stock answers and then trying to divert the conversation back to the subject which would save my marriage even if it was in trouble – working on making my son’s autism easier to handle. But of course these diversion tactics were interpreted as evidence that something was wrong, and round and round we’d go.

Even when the marriage was humming along beautifully despite my son’s autism, and I gave full and heart-felt answers to assure them we were doing fine, still they would push to find something wrong with the marriage which they could “fix for us”. In so doing, they would at times end up raising frictions between my husband and I that we didn’t previously have! At those times they weren’t uncovering hidden problems, they were simply creating new ones. I even eventually turned down the otherwise potentially helpful services of a particular agency, that was absolutely determined to also find error in our marriage.

Yes our marriage went through a very rocky patch after the diagnosis. But we stuck together, we worked through it, and the challenges of bringing up a child with autism has brought us very close: Like no one else, we understand what we both go through every single day. We need and rely on each other. Divorce would be a poor decision for us; when things get tough, we are reminded of how much harder it would be to be doing this alone, so we buck up and get appreciative of each other all over again.

But we must be the exception to the rule, right? Look at those high divorce statistics! There’s my contact, who works for an Autism Charity, who cited 90%. I have great respect for her but the figure has no foundation that I can find. Trying to find an original source for the very commonly cited 80% figure, is very difficult. It appears to have originated in an Oprah interview with Jenny McCarthy in 2007, quoting the figure possibly from the charity “Autism Speaks” (Jenny is also a very vocal advocate of the claim that autism is caused by vaccinations). A May 2010 study cites a 65% rate of separation, compared to couples without an autistic child who have 64%. And here’s one from August 2010 citing a better than three in four chance of staying together after your child is diagnosed with autism.The 80% divorce figure has now been firmly debunked.

When we got the diagnosis a couple of years back this public debunking hadn’t happened, so perhaps I can then understand the obsession of all those help-groups and agencies trying to stop us becoming another divorce statistic. Or maybe they should have just done some research into the statistics, and respected my wishes when I said I had enough on my plate with my son, without tackling every tiny issue in my marriage at the same time.

I often get my husband to proof-read my posts before I publish them; find the odd non-sensical or badly structured sentence. I particularly get him to approve any post that refers to him. I told him I was having trouble figuring out how to end this post well; I really wanted to end on a strong quote which summed up my experiences with these helpful agencies. He immediately thought of the perfect one (how could I divorce such a helpful man?):

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

This entry was posted in Help Groups, Parenting an Autistic Child and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Till Autism Do Us Part

  1. Stef says:

    Instead of telling you they are going to help you, it seems that perhaps asking ‘how can I help you?’ would be better.

    • Absolutely Stef. It was very clear with a lot of these groups that they had a “list of concerns” they had to tick off with us as “clients”, even where those concerns were not the reason for their involvement. I think another factor at play with the insistence of offering help in the way they did, was that it is easier to see to be soing something to help a marriage, than it is to be doing something to help the autism, so to make themselves look and feel useful, that was what they attempted to do.

  2. Oh yes, they are always full of wonderful, pithy advice: “Remember to take time for yourselves.” “A happy marriage equals happy children.” “You should go away together.”

    Smile and nod. “Shouldn’t you be focusing on that colonoscopy/injection/eye exam? If I want marriage advice, I’ll seek a marriage counselor. Just tick the box and move along now.”

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