Divorce is a hard-to-explain and very “adult” topic that also has profound ramifications on the life of a child. Indeed, the topic of divorce is difficult for any child to understand. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who often process information in a concrete manner, prefer established routines, and need support understanding and interpreting emotions, divorce can feel even more complicated.
So how can parents help children grapple with divorce?
Most importantly, take a moment to recognize that everything you do to support your child every day can be extrapolated to guide him/her through the process of divorce and the changes in life that result from divorce. Think about how you prepare your child for any change in routine or a new experience, or to understand emotions and sensory challenges. All of these strategies are relevant as your child navigates divorce.
Tailor the conversation to your child
Children process information in their own ways and in their own time, so find ways to support your child based on his/her specific developmental needs. Some may worry that they caused the divorce or wonder how they can “fix” it. Assure the child that divorce is an adult decision; he/she is not responsible and is in no way to blame.
“Many children concentrate on the practical aspects of the divorce experience rather than on the emotional. Children may perseverate on a seemingly irrelevant aspect of the experience, such as whether or not their new home will have Internet access. Recognize that it is important to them, and support their immediate concerns.”
Acknowledge the practical implications
Many children concentrate on the practical aspects of the divorce experience rather than on the emotional. Children may perseverate on a seemingly irrelevant aspect of the experience, such as whether or not their new home will have Internet access. Recognize that it is important to them, and support their immediate concerns.
Provide extra attention to transitions, consistency, and routine
Think about strategies that have worked well in other aspects of the child’s life and utilize them to provide support. For example, a picture schedule, visual checklist, or calendar may help a child gain comfort with a new schedule. Although routines and rules may vary between homes, try to maintain consistency as much as possible, allowing the child time to adjust.
• Provide sensory supports
As the child is processing and coping with the divorce, think about sensory-based strategies that have been comforting in the past. Consider having a quiet space in each home, a pile of pillows to jump into, and/or sensory-friendly toys and fidgets.
• Provide emotional guidance
Some children may become withdrawn or irritable, experience behavioral changes, or show signs of regression as they experience their parents’ divorce. Help them recognize their feelings (sadness, anger, confusion, etc.) and provide messages of unconditional love. Partner with teachers, therapists, and others in the child’s life for support during this time.
• Considerations for the parent
Avoid talking negatively about the other parent in front of the child, and be sure not to use the child as a messenger. Consider ways to bolster your own support by engaging with other parents, family members, friends, a religious community, therapist, or support group.
• Plan for continuity of care
As you work through custody-related planning and scheduling, find ways to specify roles and the division of labor that take into account the social, emotional, and/or medical needs of the child (medication management, therapies, medical equipment, etc.).
• Consider future needs planning
A common concern of many parents of children with special needs is planning for such things as schooling, housing, and other long-term considerations—all of which can get complicated in a divorce. Thinking about these things in advance can be helpful in laying the foundation for a working relationship.
Guiding children with autism through a divorce can feel overwhelming. However, when approached in a way that takes into account the child’s specific developmental, social, and learning needs, this process can serve as an important foundation as the child grows and experiences other life transitions.