Supporting the Child with Autism When Families Separate

Parenting any child is hard work.  “It takes a village to raise a child” is an adage with which we are all familiar.  In this day and age, many parenting partnerships end in separation or divorce. Whether the dissolution of the parental relationship was a positive or negative experience based on individual perceptions, the outcome remains the same: children are raised in various environments outside of the original nuclear family unit.  With this comes a whole host of changes that occur for both the parent(s) and the child in physical, social, emotional and psychological domains.  How can parents minimize the impact these changes have on the child with autism?

Factors to consider:

The child’s level of understanding of the situation and his or her ability to communicate feelings about it

Each child has varying degrees of insight into situations and the capacity to talk about it.  If your child is one who can have a brief conversation, it may be helpful to summarize what is or has occurred using positive language.  This means that providing positive responses to questions is important.  For example: “Families come in all shapes and sizes.  Mom and dad have decided to live in separate places to allow each of us to be happier people.  This will mean that we won’t have the arguments we used to have here and it will be better for all of us.”  Make every effort to keep the conversation brief and positive as children with autism have difficulty processing large volumes of verbal information.  Provide reassurances that both parents love the child and that the child will be taken care of at all times. If the child asks questions that are difficult to answer, let the child know that these are good questions and when the parent has the answers, the parent will let the child know.

Supporting a healthy relationship with each parent

Emotions are always involved for families who separate.  Parents may have feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, betrayal or mistrust.  It is important to separate a parent’s feelings from the feelings of the child and make efforts to support the child’s needs by maintaining positive relationships with each parent.  This means avoiding outright criticism of the other parent in front of the child.  “Trash-talking” the other parent in front of the child causes confusion and creates negative feelings within the child which in turn may lead to challenging behaviors in that child.  Avoid the temptation of putting the other parent down (this includes avoiding negative conversations with friends and extended family in the presence of the child).  Situations of abuse and neglect may have played a role in the separation, in which case, it may be best to avoid talking about the other parent all together for a period of time, until the parent can summarize without a huge explosion of emotion.  Emotionally-charged events stick like glue in the minds of children with autism.  What information is shared about the cause of the break-up should depend on the child’s maturity level, cognitive level and ability to communicate about feelings.

Supporting smooth transitions between environments

Transitions for any child with autism are difficult.  Simple changes to routines can cause turmoil in a family. When parents are separated and the child goes between parental homes, this results in huge transitions and a significant amount of change for the child with autism.  Ensuring the child has a “security” object to take with him/her can be helpful in these transitions.  A favorite toy or comfort object may ease the child’s anxiety and provide a sense of familiarity in a time of upheaval and transition.  Providing the child with a visual schedule may also be helpful to demonstrate that he/she will be in specific homes at specific times.

Creating consistent routines across environments – setting the stage for a fresh start

Ideally, parents should communicate about the needs of the child.  This includes making efforts to keep the child’s routines similar across parental homes.  The more consistent the routine, the easier the child will adjust to having to go between different environments.  Having a routine makes life predictable for a child with autism.  Having a predictable routine means less anxiety and better behavior.  Common routines include “Morning Routines,” “After School Routines” and “Bed-time Routines.”  When one parent creates a visual routine, it is helpful to share that routine with the other parent to maintain consistency.  Posting routines around the house can reduce the child’s confusion about expectations.  Children with autism do well with rules, routines and clearly defined expectations.  When parents have drastically different expectations or routines, it can result in greater stress and “meltdowns” during and immediately following the transition from one home to another.

Creating a “safe place” for a child in a new home

Many children with autism need a place to unwind, decompress, de-stress, and have solitude or quiet.  Creating a ‘safe place’ for your child (a quiet, undisturbed space where the child can do some calming activities) in each parent’s home is helpful.  This is a space where the child can go when feeling stressed.  Schools may call it a ‘sensory room.’  At home, it can be as simple as a make-shift child tent, a bean bag chair or even a corner of his/her room with comforting objects and sensory tools available for self-calming.  Because the transition may be a stressful event, it is helpful to have this ‘safe space’ ready so that a child can enter the parent’s home and go directly to that space for 15 – 20 minutes as a calming activity.

Using similar strategies for parenting where possible

No parent is perfect.  Putting aside personal feelings and focusing on the needs of the child can be a very difficult process for families who have separated under duress.  One of the biggest challenges to parenting a child with autism in situations of separation is responding to challenging behaviors in the same way across environments.  Part of separating may have been related to differences in parenting styles.  Some parents have drastically opposing parenting styles.  This may ultimately result in confusion (and again, challenging behavior) for the child who has autism.  Getting parents on ‘the same page’ has a lot to do with healthy communication.

Communication between separated parents

There are many levels of communication that exist as options for parents who are attempting to support a child with autism (phone, email, text, Skype, FaceTime, third party involvement, communication binders etc.).  Depending on the nature of the separation, parents may or may not communicate or may not communicate in a healthy manner.  The first step any parent can make is to put aside their own feelings and focus solely on the needs of the child.  This is quite often easier said than done.  Creating a specific list of child-related issues to discuss can be helpful in streamlining the important topics and reducing the amount of discussion of other separation-based parental issues.  For example, create a spreadsheet or table with a list of items to review to include: sleeping, eating, toileting, medications, challenging behaviors, and a positive aspect of the day. This can be placed in a communication binder that goes between parental homes which reduces the amount of personal discussion the parents may need to have when tensions are high.  In an ideal world, parents would be able to openly communicate about the needs of the child and work towards an action plan to address any challenges.  This level of communication may take time following a separation but is always worthwhile.

Supporting a child who attends a new daycare or school

In some cases, children attend new schools as a result of parental separation.  This situation may have been sudden and unexpected or may have been something that was known to either parent.  Providing visits to the daycare or school to enable the child to become familiar with the environment, the staff and some of the basic set up (locker space, homeroom, washrooms, water fountains, change rooms, classrooms etc.) will help the child reduce anxiety about the ‘unknown.’

Educating new parent partners in Autism

Introducing new partners into the family dynamic can be a challenging process.  Part of this challenge is based on the fact that children with autism often have difficulty coping with change.  The other challenge is ensuring the new partner understands autism so that parenting strategies remain consistent.

Understanding that Behavior is Communication

If a child with autism becomes more challenging in his/her behavior following a parental separation, it may be as a result of this change in routine.  Children with autism are sensitive to change and may need time to adapt to the new circumstances.  Having patience and insight into new challenges at times of disruption or change is essential.  Not taking the child’s behavior ‘personally’ is also important.  The child with autism may not know how to articulate his/her feelings about the new parental separation (even if he/she is a verbal child) and as a result, may act out.  Always consider that every challenging behavior seen in the child is a form of communication. He/she is trying to communicate something.  Parents have the tricky task of figuring out what the child is trying to say.

Parenting any child is, indeed, hard work.  Single-parenting a child with autism means that a parent has full responsibility with a potential increase in challenging behaviors and seemingly less support.  Accessing respite (babysitters) is helpful in gaining some support.  Looking to neighbors, the community and friends for additional support may be of benefit.

There are solutions to supporting a child with autism when a family separates.

If you are struggling with the above issues and need some professional support and guidance, please feel free to call and book your consultation at (204) 415 – 7656.