Divorce is a disruptive process by definition – it involves separation and inevitable change in lifestyles, living arrangements and so on – and this can make it especially challenging for children living with autism.
For many autistic children, a regular routine is a coping mechanism, helping them to know what to expect from their day and avoid overwhelming inputs and information coming into their brain.
Mediators can help to reduce stress levels and keep discussions amicable and on schedule, all of which can be beneficial to couples with children both with and without autism.
Although some aspects of divorce are unavoidable, there are steps you can take to mitigate the negative impacts on your child, while helping them to understand and adapt to their new circumstances.
Keeping children – whether they are autistic or not – involved in the divorce process can help them to adapt to the changes that are to come.
That’s not to say you should involve your child in every aspect of the divorce, but by consulting them on future arrangements that will affect them, you can help them to feel that they have a voice and some degree of control over the process.
If one parent is moving out of the family home, for instance, you might want to ask the child’s opinion on which house or flat to move into, or how much time they want to spend at each parent’s place.
Giving your child a clear schedule can help to remove some of the unknown elements from the process.
Luckily for the long term, this is something divorce can do well – again for example, by clearly specifying when the child will be looked after by each parent.
In the short term of the divorce itself, it can be more difficult to predict the exact sequence of events, so be aware that your child may need more support to navigate any immediate change, delays or disagreements.
Depending on your child, it may help to visualise information for them. That might mean a graphic calendar of events with pictures to represent different days, passport photos of each parent to stick on, and so on.
Other autistic children may deal better with words than images, so consider turning your divorce into a story if your child benefits from giving it a narrative structure.
Shares and spares
If your child will be spending time at both parents’ houses, make sure you have some ‘shares’ and some ‘spares’.
‘Shares’ are the items that your child can take with them from one place to the other. This gives some much-needed continuity.
Remember, although as a separated couple your future lives will be spent largely apart, your child should not feel torn in two by this – their time spent with each of you is part of one life and should feel as such.
‘Spares’ are for those items that cannot easily be moved, e.g. games consoles that are set up and wired in, or essentials like school uniforms where it makes sense for both parents to have at least one full set.
Duplicating these items in both parents’ places provides continuity in a different way – just be aware that with an autistic child in particular, you might need to find a very close match as even a minor difference can be jarring.