Dealing with divorce is often sad, stressful, and confusing for children. But the challenges may be amplified if you have an autistic child. They might not understand why their parents are getting divorced, and changes in routine and parenting may cause anxiety, impact feelings of belonging, and overall wellbeing. Plus, there are all sorts of curveballs – like legal custody arrangements, co-parenting amicability, and your child’s developmental stage and comprehension – that further complicate the parent’s ability to help their child.
To better help autistic children cope with the initial stress and challenges of divorce, parents need to work together – or independently if more appropriate – to adapt their practices based on their child’s individual situation.
Developmentally appropriate explanations
Regardless of your child’s age or neurotype, explaining divorce and the changes that come with it is difficult. But it’s the first step in this major life transition – and, therefore, important to get right. How do you explain it to your child?
• Include both parents in the conversation
• Practise what you’ll say and how you’ll answer their questions
• Create an early plan for future changes in your child’s life
Autistic individuals at early stages of development may need more support. So, be mindful that your child might take the news literally or have a delayed or highly emotional response. Use direct, concrete, and compassionate language to explain – and avoid euphemisms.
Social Stories is a useful resource to help children understand how the future will look after your divorce, like experiencing greater or reduced parent contact and new environments.
You might find that while older children may have a more developed understanding of how divorce will affect their routine, they may internalise emotions or even blame themselves. As such, you should discuss the divorce in more depth if appropriate. No matter how young or old your child is, share the initial news with reassurance that they are not to blame.
Addressing anxiety and uncertainty
Often, autistic children like predictability and might depend on consistency to manage anxiety. Parental separation typically means major life changes that can be very stressful – from new routines and divided parent time to conflict and general uncertainty. This anxiety can manifest as meltdowns or reduced communication.
So, supporting your child’s mental health with diligent planning is essential. It’s a good idea to discuss any legal or co-parent matters away from their hearing. Also, develop care plans, like where they’ll live or any financial changes in advance, to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.
Parents can teach young children calming strategies, offer reassurance, practice clear communication, and introduce as much predictability as possible in their child’s life. You might also consider finding a family therapist or individual counsellor.
Older children or autistic teenagers might similarly crave a sense of control – you should be alert for any signs of mental health distress or substance abuse as an emotional or stress response.
Helping autistic children manage change
Sticking to routines and schedules can help parents and autistic children improve their understanding of the transition post-divorce, avoiding frustration and anxiety.
Younger autistic children might find visual schedules or timetables helpful, as well as Social Stories, to prepare them to spend time in separate homes and get used to what they can expect. Make your communication tools personal, portable, and consistent – the National Autistic Society has further useful resources to create visual supports.
Older teenagers might have more independence to choose how they spend their time – so teaching flexibility is vital. Use phrases like “sometimes” and “maybe” to prepare your child for the fact that occasionally change happens. Autistic teens may have a preference for one parent over the other for certain activities, but teaching communication strategies and problem-solving skills will help the transition.
Adapting to new parenting techniques
Autistic children of divorce depend on their parents for their social and emotional development, which means consistent parenting techniques are vital to helping them cope. Divorcing parents need to agree on parental approaches to support their child’s development, including behaviour management. You might find that one parent is more permissive or strict than the other – but you’ll need to compromise to develop the most effective techniques for your child.
Family mediators or qualified therapists can help independently enforce rules and routines – avoiding subjective opinions, especially when there’s conflict. Third-party involvement is particularly useful to teach young children to respect each parent’s individual authority. And autistic children need consistent approaches to behaviour management and routines to prevent anxiety or confusion.
Teenagers and older individuals might also need appropriate encouragement to support healthy habits. Parents should work together to help their child’s development.
Maintaining positive well being
Ultimately, the most effective strategy to help your child cope with divorce is to do what’s best for their wellbeing and future. As with any child of a separating family, you should mediate conflict, compromise on solutions, encourage healthy communication, and meet developmental needs for love and belonging. And autistic children may require a little more support to navigate the changes.
Maintaining a sense of family unity is vital. Whatever your individual circumstances, including all siblings and both parents in communal activities with equal participation and honest communication, can help children cope with your divorce.
Reaching out to professionals
If you’re going through a divorce and need an expert on hand to help you avoid unnecessary costs, proceedings, and disputes, get in touch today. Let us assist you so you can focus on your child’s needs.