Divorce is complicated enough, but when there is a child with autism or other disability involved, it takes things to another level. I should know. I unexpectedly faced divorce after 21 years of marriage, and it took incredible amounts of time, money, and emotional energy to get through the process, so I could effectively advocate for the needs of my kids on opposite ends of the autism spectrum. I did get a great result for my family, but I decided other families shouldn’t have to recreate the wheel and go through the efforts that I did. So, I formed Special Family Transitions and became a Special Needs Divorce Coach to help other families through this overwhelming and complex process.
In my professional and personal experience, I have seen common themes for reasons for conflict in special needs divorce, which translates to additional expense and strife for these families, who already have so much on their plates.
First, parents may not agree on the child’s diagnosis and the extent of their needs. This may be due to their different views, experiences, and involvement with the child, especially if one is the primary caregiver and the other parent does not have visibility to the challenges the child may face when not in their presence.
Parents may be at different stages of the Grief Cycle, where perhaps a parent is stuck in the Denial phase, and has not moved through the Anger, Bargaining, Depression, or Acceptance phases. Until the parent finally acknowledges and fully accepts the child and their disability, coming to agreement and making plans for the child’s current and future needs will be difficult.
Second, one parent may not be comfortable with the other parent’s ability to address the autistic child’s needs. If the child has complex medical, behavioral, or psychological needs, one parent may worry that the other parent does not have the experience or knowledge to safely care for the child. A parent may worry about their autistic child’s difficulty with transitions and adapting to altered routines. Parents may be concerned about different parenting styles and rules in each residence, which may cause difficulty transitioning back and forth between homes.
Third, parents may have issues communicating or sharing information. Even though some parents may prefer not to communicate with their soon-to-be ex-spouse, it is important to find a method to provide updates about the children and important matters. It helps to keep emotion out of these communications, and respectfully and succinctly focus on facts, events, and inquiries related to the child. For various reasons in a divorce, written documentation via email or a parenting app is preferred over phone calls and text messages.
Fourth, some parents may feel the responsibilities of taking care of the child are not being shared equitably. This can include the amount of caregiving time and effort one parent is providing, taking care of the planning and decision making for the child, making plans for their future care, as well as financial contribution.
Fifth, custody and possession concerns cause great strife for many families. In determining how to allocate parenting time and possession schedules, “Standard Possession Orders,” as they are called in some states, may not be ideal for children on the spectrum. It benefits all involved to be flexible and consider a schedule which accommodates the children’s needs as well as the parents’ work schedules. It is also helpful to minimize the number of transitions between homes per week for the child, since transitions can be difficult and may cause anxiety for children with autism.
Sixth, parents may not fully understand or agree on the financial needs for a child with a disability. It is important to understand current expenses and costs to support the child, including therapies, private schools, special diets, medical costs, supplements, as well as basic living costs. Sometimes when one parent is the breadwinner or handles the finances, or if one parent is the caregiver and handles the child’s special needs and services, the other parent may not be aware or have visibility to the child’s expenses and funds needed to address their needs. It is important to not just develop a plan for current expenses, but to also plan for future needs, since many children on the spectrum may not be able to be fully independent adults.
Once both parents have a handle on the costs needed to raise and provide developmental opportunities for a disabled child, the next challenge is how to fund those needs as part of the divorce. Funding can be in the form of child support, setting money aside in third party trusts or other accounts, as well as agreed to contributions to schools, therapies, or programs. Parents should discuss who will fund and provide health insurance coverage for the child. It is important to set up life insurance to fund the child’s needs if something happens to one or both parents, but it is advisable that the beneficiary of the life insurance policy should be a third party trust, and not the disabled child, so the child can maintain eligibility for government benefits. Some states or agreements allow for extended or indefinite child support past age of emancipation, but to maintain eligibility for government benefits past age 18, ongoing child support can be paid into a first party supplemental needs trust. Financial and legal considerations can become complex, so working with professionals knowledgeable in special needs planning is helpful. Working through the financial planning and payments to support a child on the spectrum can be one of the most overwhelming and conflict-producing aspects of a special needs divorce.
So what should divorcing parents do to limit conflict and work towards what is in the best interest of a child on the spectrum in a divorce? To make the divorce more child-centric, consider the child’s diagnosis and needs, jointly develop a plan to meet and fund the child’s current and future needs, discuss how each parent will spend time with the child to minimize changes in the child’s routine, and respectfully communicate with each other. Not only will working jointly and agreeing on these aspects of taking care of the child during and after divorce save time, money, and effort, but it will also provide a better and healthier co-parenting environment to help the child develop and thrive.
Mary Ann Hughes, MBA, is a Special Needs Certified Divorce Coach and is Founder of Special Family Transitions LLC. For more information and resources on special needs divorce, please visit SpecialFamilyTransitions.com and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. You can also reach Mary Ann at email@example.com.