Special Needs and Divorce: What Does the Data Say?


It’s not unusual to attend presentations at disability ministry conferences where statistics on the impact of specific disabilities are quoted or repeated and accepted as fact, without citing the original source of the research. I’ve been guilty myself of citing or repeating statistics I’ve heard at conferences without verifying the primary source…I’d NEVER be able to get away with spouting statistics without references if I was presenting at a major medical conference.

That got me thinking about some of the statistics I’d been using in Key Ministry presentations. First, as Christians, we have an extra burden to represent the truth, because people will judge our witness (and indirectly, Jesus) based upon the integrity of what we say and do. Second, the consequences of what I do in my ministry activities have even greater lasting significance than the decisions I make in my medical practice, so the standards ought to be at least as rigorous as the ones I implement in my day job.

To that end, I spent an evening searching out the frequently-quoted statistic of an 80% plus divorce rate in marriages where the parents are raising a child with special needs. I make no claims that this search is all-inclusive. Searching journals in developmental or intellectual disabilities is extremely challenging because few articles are made available for “open access” (anyone can download and read the contents free of charge). I was surprised at how little research exists on the topic. There’s lots of research on the impact of parental divorce on kids, but very little information about the impact of disability in children on parental marriage status or satisfaction.

There are seven studies of good quality that I’ve located on the topic to date…

A study by Wymbs and Pelham (J Consult Clin Psychol. 2008 October; 76(5): 735-744) examined divorce rates and predictors of divorce among parents of youth with ADHD. The divorce rate among parents of kids with ADHD was nearly twice that of couples in the general population (22.7 percent of parents of children with ADHD had divorced by the time the child was 8 years old, compared to 12.6 percent of parents in the control group). If the parents of a child with ADHD were still married by the time their child reached the age of 8, their subsequent divorce rate was no higher than that of controls.

Factors associated with an increased risk of divorce included history of antisocial behavior in the father, mothers with substantially less education than fathers, an earlier age of diagnosis of the child’s ADHD,  children from racial or ethnic minority groups and children with concomitant behaviors associated with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder.

Robbers et al (Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2011 April; 46(4): 311–319) examined a sample of over 6,400 children in The Netherlands to ascertain to what extent internalizing and externalizing problems at age 3 preceded and predicted parental divorce. They found that higher levels of externalizing problems (aggression, conduct problems, hyperactivity)  in girls at age 3 (but not in boys) predicted later parental divorce.

A study by Urbano and Hodapp (Am J Ment Retard 2007 Jul;112(4):261-74) compared divorce rates among families of children with Down Syndrome to families of children with other birth defects and families of children with no identified disability. Divorce rates were lower among couples with a child with Down’s than in the other two groups. When divorce did occur in the Down Syndrome group, it was more likely within the first 2 years after the child’s birth. Factors associated with increased risk of divorce among families of children with Down’s included younger age of parents, parents who were unable to complete high school, fathers with less education than mothers and couples living in rural areas.

Swarminathan, Alexander and Boulet (Maternal and Child Health Journal 2006 Nov;10(6):473-479) found parents of very low birth weight (VLBW) infants have a 2-fold greater chance of divorce/separation compared with parents of a child with a birth weight greater than 1500 grams during the two year period following delivery.

Hartley et al (J Fam Psychol. 2010 Aug;24(4):449-57) examined rates of divorce among families of children with autism spectrum disorders. Parents of children with an ASD had a higher rate of divorce than the comparison group (23.5% vs. 13.8%). The rate of divorce remained high throughout the son’s or daughter’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood for parents of children with an ASD, whereas it decreased following the son’s or daughter’s childhood (after about age 8 years) in the comparison group. Younger maternal age when the child with ASD was born and having the child born later in the birth order were positively predictive of divorce for parents of children with an ASD.

Baeza-Velasco et al (J Dev Phys Disabil (2013) 25:613-624) examined the occurrence and timing of separation of parents raising children with Autism Spectrum Disorders followed over a 10-year period (n = 119). They compared the clinical characteristics of children and sociodemographic variables between parents who remained as a couple versus parents who separated. The results showed that after 10 years of follow-up 74.8 % of the couples remained together (n = 89), representing a separation rate of 25.2 %. This rate remained stable over the study period. There was no significant difference in any of the clinical and sociodemographic variables between comparison groups. They suggest that “raising a child with autism does not often lead to the dissolution of the parents’ relationship, as is commonly believed.”

Namkung et al (Am J Intellectual Devel Disabilities 2015; (120):6, 514-526)  prospectively examined the risk of divorce in 190 parents of children with developmental disabilities compared to 7,251 parents of children without disabilities based on a random sample drawn from the community and followed longitudinally for over 50 years. They found the risk of divorce increased among families without a child with intellectual disability as the families became larger but did not increase with increased family size among families of a child with intellectual disability. Overall, they saw no significant difference in divorce rates among families with and without intellectual disabilities (22% vs 20%, respectively).

Eun Ha Namkung, lead author of the study, shared this interpretation of the findings…

“Our results clearly show that the effects of having additional children are different for families of individuals with developmental disabilities compared to the effects on the general population, and suggest that other children in the family may be a vital support system for parents coping with the care of a child with a developmental disability.”

A study by Freedman and Kalb (J Autism Devel Disorders 2011 DOI: 10.1007/s10803-011-1269-y) demonstrated the following:

Despite speculation about an 80% divorce rate among parents of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), very little empirical and no epidemiological research has addressed the issue of separation and divorce among this population. Data for this study was taken from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, a population-based, cross-sectional survey. A total of 77,911 parent interviews were completed on children aged 3–17 years, of which 913 reported an ASD diagnosis. After controlling for relevant covariates, results from multivariate analyses revealed no evidence to suggest that children with ASD are at an increased risk for living in a household not comprised of their two biological or adoptive parents compared to children without ASD in the United States.

Here’s an interesting quote from Dr. Brian Freedman, lead author of the study:

“Results from the analysis found no consistent evidence of an association between a child having an ASD diagnosis and that child living in a traditional versus nontraditional family. Once we control for co-occurring psychiatric disorders, our results show that a child with an ASD is slightly more likely than those without ASD to live in a traditional household. This somewhat counter-intuitive result is likely due to particularly low probabilities of living in traditional households for children with those other disorders, regardless of whether or not they have ASD. In fact, exploratory analyses suggest that having ADHD, Externalizing, and Internalizing disorders are more strongly related to the probability of not living in a traditional household than is ASD.”

Here are my takeaway points following a review of the available data:

The data from the Wisconsin study would appear to suggest that the presence of older children who can help parents with the day-to-day responsibilities of supporting siblings with severe disabilities may play an important role in maintaining family stability. While the data from which the results of the study were derived came from an earlier time in society when families in general were more stable, the results are consistent with what I see in my practice…older siblings who share in caregiving play a critical role in helping families impacted by disability to function effectively.

I also suspect the level of understanding about autism in the community has progressed to the point that having a child with the condition has become more socially acceptable. The same is true of Down Syndrome, which is caused by a specific chromosomal abnormality. Mental health is still a taboo topic. It’s less stigmatizing to have a kid with an autism spectrum disorder than a kid with a psychiatric disorder.

When prevalence rates of autism increase, the government and private foundations (appropriately so) invest money into research to figure out the cause. When rates of ADHD, bipolar disorder, or anxiety increase among kids, the immediate assumption is that lifestyle choices by parents, drug company conspiracies or shoddy diagnosis are contributing factors. I’d hypothesize that parents of a kid with a psychiatric diagnosis are more fearful of being judged by others (say…at church?) than parents of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. As a result, parents of kids with psychiatric conditions may be less likely to have the social supports and the connection to community that helps to preserve marriages.

While experience suggests that families of kids with ASDs very much need purposeful and intentional outreach and support from a local church, this may be even more true in families of kids with psychiatric conditions.

The bottom line is that families of kids with all special needs are in desperate need of local churches where they can experience the love of Jesus through the care and support of friends and neighbors.

Resource… Here’s an excellent download on the myths and realities of marriage for parents of kids with autism spectrum disorders.

Most recent update October 31, 2015