Navigating any divorce can very quickly become complicated and tricky. For parents with an autistic child, this added complication can become particularly overwhelming. The courts are not well-equipped to deal with the specialized needs of children on the spectrum. Parents will find that they need to educate both the judge and their attorneys about autism and specifically about their child’s needs.
However, each parent often has a different view of what is best for their autistic child. This could be in terms of ability to transition, therapeutic methods, choice of curriculum, private versus public school, discipline, social skills training, medication, etc. Even when parents do agree on how to care for their special needs child, there will still be issues of who will take care of the myriad of time-consuming tasks associated with raising a child who is on the spectrum, and how those services will be financed.
Mediation is an excellent option for parents of an autistic child. There are no courtroom distractions, legal tactics or aggressive negotiation strategies. There is no concern about outrageous legal fees or competition for the judge’s time and attention. In mediation, the focus can be where it should be: On doing what is best for their child.
Some of the factors that must be addressed when making arrangements for your autistic child in a divorce situation follow:
(1) Autistic children require consistency and structure in their day-to-day lives. Most experts agree that consistency in care should be disrupted as little as possible both during and after divorce. This need for consistency may include decisions such as having the child and primary caretaker remain in the family residence, even when finances would suggest otherwise. Though divorce and change are inextricable, the shifts in care-taking roles, schools, lifestyle and primary residence will probably need to be taken slower than in other divorce situations. Parents should expect some backward movement in their child’s treatment during a divorce. But with an eye toward the future and a tamping down of negative emotions and blame, your autistic child will be able to start moving forward once all settlement decisions have been made and a new balance is restored.
(2) The choice of appropriate custodial care arrangements is often limited for children on the spectrum. When establishing how to share the tasks of caring for their child, parents will need to determine which arrangement will cause the least disruption to their child.This can limit the custodial care arrangements often considered by divorcing parents (e.g., an every-other-week arrangement, a split week arrangement, extended summers with the non-primary custodian, etc.). Moving between houses can be extremely stressful to an autistic child, and parents will need to decide to how much transitioning back and forth between two separate households is appropriate for their child. There may also be the necessity of one of the parents remaining in the family home, even if such an arrangement is tough financially.
(3) Parents of autistic children may find their ability to earn income, and therefore become independent of one another, is severely limited by their child’s needs. Parents of autistic children will need to decide which parent is best able to provide the time necessary to properly care for their child. This, of course, will affect the care-taking parent’s ability to earn income and will necessitate a greater need for interdependence and financial support. Children on the spectrum often need intensive therapy, both in and outside of the home. They may need to attend schools that require long rides in the car, and there is often plenty of extra work to be done at home as part of his or her curriculum and therapeutic program. The child often needs more one-on-one time with a consistent caretaker-parent, too, than would a child without special needs. Creative solutions, including flexible jobs and lean household budgets, will need to be considered by the parents in settling their divorce case. This type of solution-oriented divorce settlement is most effectively supported in a non-confrontational setting, such as mediation.
(4) Extraordinary expenses for special school and therapy often dictates the lifestyle of parents with an autistic child. Children on the spectrum demand all types of therapeutic intervention. Even children who are low on the spectrum require a lot of assistance. Sometimes, the less obviously affected the child is by his or her disability, the more intervention is necessary. Those children often have the hope of becoming independent as long as the right type of intervention, in the right amount, is implemented early and with total commitment by the parents. Oftentimes, the best therapeutic methods are not covered by insurance, or are only partially covered, even by the best plans. Autistic children often require occupational therapy (OT), applied behavior analysis (ABA), academic tutoring, social skills training, vision therapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy, etc. Parents of autistic children do not always agree on which methods are best, and this may become a serious point of negotiation in a divorce settlement. Such differences in opinion require the parents’ full attention and access to information. This is not always the case when the adversarial litigation process is chosen as the means for resolving conflict. You could end up in a “battle of the experts”, have a judge who does not understand the needs of an autistic child, or have the primary issues become obfuscated by the raw desire to “win”. Once again, mediation is an excellent option for parents with special needs children because it allows for full attention to be placed on the child’s needs, both during and after the divorce.
(5) Planning for an autistic child may stretch well beyond his or her minor status. Children with special needs may need financial and physical care beyond their 18th birthday. Virginia, and many other jurisdictions, allow for child support payments to be obligatory in such cases where an adult child is unable to independently care for him or herself and must necessarily continue to live with one of the parents. Most parents have a desire for their child to learn the skills necessary to become independent adults and, to that end, they engage and participate in services in support of that goal. However, when it appears that this may not be the case, divorcing parents will need to plan for this reality in terms of their career options, choice of residence and lifestyle.
It is clear that the custodial and financial arrangements that parents of an autistic child must consider, when going through a divorce, will require cooperation and creative problem solving. If you are getting a divorce, and have a child on the autism spectrum, please consider mediation as the best alternative to litigation. Mediation allows you and the other parent to be in control of your child’s well-being. Mediation ensures that the focus of settlement remains on how you will structure your new lives to do all that is necessary and appropriate for your special needs child while living in two separate homes. Divorce is never easy, but finding a way to keep your child’s best interest at the center of your negotiations will pay off for the whole family, and your child will certainly be better off for your efforts.
Posted by Zia Meyer, Mediation Assistant