Special Needs and Divorce: What Does the Data Say?

shutterstock_174158831It’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 were five studies of good quality that I located on the topic. The largest study (Freedman BH et al.) was recently published online.

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.

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.

In contrast to the study by Hartley, 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:

While I can certainly attest from my clinical experience to the challenges families face when parenting a kid with an autism spectrum disorder, 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’s 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 ASD. 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.

Most recent update February 15, 2014

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Square Peg Round HoleKey Ministry has assembled a helpful resource on the topic of Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development. This page includes the blog series Dr. Grcevich and Mike Woods developed for Key Ministry, links to lots of helpful resources from other like-minded organizations, and Dr. Grcevich’s presentation on the topic from the 2012 Children’s Ministry Web Summit. Click here to access the page!

About Steve Grcevich

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as Chairman of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland, and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health.
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25 Responses to Special Needs and Divorce: What Does the Data Say?

  1. Jon says:

    First, thank you for finding solid stats. It is too often that numbers are thrown around with no support.

    I know there is a tendency to blame the parents for a child’s ADHD and that is sad. I also know that ADHD symptoms can arise from a child’s trauma, real or perceived. When trauma decreases the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, you see ADHD.

    Could it be that there are more divorces in a house with a child diagnosed with ADHD because there were problems in the marriage to start with that have also caused the damage to the child’s brain. In that case the divorce is a symptom along with the ADHD of a troubled relationship instead of a result of the ADHD.

    Helping marriages before children would help lower that both divorce rates and rates of ADHD. (I acknowledge that all ADHD symptoms are not from bad marriages.)

    Another question I have is to the difference in the numbers of the last 2 studies. If the divorce rate in families with ASD than in families without, you would assume there would be more children from broken homes in families with ADS.

    Could the differences be accounted for in number of children in household? I have not seen numbers on this but I would think homes with a child with ADS would have less children than most of the homes where there is divorce without ADS.

    For example, using the Hartley numbers (24% vs. 14%, rounded), if ADS homes had one child and the other homes had 2 children the numbers of children in homes of divorce would be 24 and 28 out of 100 families on each side respectively. I am not sure how all that transfers but I would be interested in seeing such a comparison.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and let me know if what I have written is not clear.

    Thanks for doing what you are doing.

  2. drgrcevich says:

    Thanks for the comments, Jon.

    The Urbano study (Down Syndrome) and the Kennedy-Krieger study (autism) were population-based studies. The data for the Down Syndrome study came from a large database…I think looking at children within a given age range in the state of Tennessee. (368,000 “normal” controls). The Kennedy-Krieger sample came from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, a government-funded project involving detailed interviews of 78,000 kids. The other two studies had smaller numbers (in the hundreds), but the families involved were interviewed in significant detail to ascertain specific risk factors for divorce.

    I think your hypothesis is plausible in the ADHD study. I’ve seen some more detailed discussion of the Kennedy-Krieger study when it was first presented, and there was some evidence of an increased divorce rate in families of kids who had other comorbid conditions (autism plus ADHD, autism plus anxiety, autism plus oppositional, defiant behavior). At the same time, I think there’s some genetic component as well in the families of kids with autism, but probably not to the same degree as with ADHD. At the high end of the spectrum, we find lots of kids with similarities to their brilliant, but socially awkward parents.

    The key point is that all of these families need lots of support, and the local church is uniquely positioned to provide them great spiritual and social benefits.

    • Jon says:

      “The key point is that all of these families need lots of support, and the local church is uniquely positioned to provide them great spiritual and social benefits.”

      I couldn’t agree more. I hope to keep moving my church forward in reaching out to these families. We have so many already with whom we could be doing so much more. Then there are all those who do not feel the church has anything to offer…

      • Suzanne M. says:

        Thank you for your comment. I am a person with Cerebral Palsy and I grew up with a Mother with Multiple Sclerosis, so I understand what disability can do to a family. Thankfully, my parents didn’t divorce. We were not christians at the time. I do know families with disablities that do go to church. I don’t think that the church knows how to come along side to help families affected by disablities.

      • drgrcevich says:

        Hi Suzanne,

        What would you like to see the church do better in order to more effectively come alongside families impacted by disabilities?

  3. Comorbid may be the key here. So often there are so many other things going on with the one with the disorder and within the family.

    So should we stop saying 80%? We usually say this within the context of “hidden disabilities” right? I know I’ve been guilty of that. It’s just really not that simple is it?

    • drgrcevich says:

      I think we should stop using the 80% statistic in the absence of evidence that the statistic is true for families of kids with hidden disabilities, or disabilities in general. For autism, there’s substantive evidence to suggest that it’s NOT true.

      I do think we need more research to demonstrate how these conditions affect church participation and spiritual development, along with well-designed research to direct churches in offering supports that make the greatest impact for kids with disabilities and their families.

      • Shannon says:

        I definitely agree that we should stop using the 80% stat. I cringed inwardly when I heard it thrown around several times at the Accessibility Summit. I know it must have come from somewhere, and I’ve been searching for the root (in hopes that it might lead to a study or something substantive to explain where it came from…and because I’m a bit of a stats nerd, if I’m honest). Unless it can be backed up, it isn’t ethical or honest to keep repeating it.

        ~Shannon @ The Works of God Displayed

  4. myjazzylife says:

    What I find very sad is the fact that I am the ONLY one at our church who has an Autistic child. No one see’s the need to make modifications for him because after all he is the ONLY one. So he is left out of many activities and events. He can not participate in AWANA or other things because he has to go with his age group. He is nine years old and yet his mind is at age 4-5. I just find it sad that no one wants to work with these children on their level. No one care that they don’t understand or catch concepts of God. My son has done very well at dealing with some crazy things like a Children’s minister who thought loud music with lots of motions was good for children sending my child into a near melt down each week. If we were not employed through this church I would venture to say we just would leave and not attend anywhere.

    As parents we need support and love. We need to know that when we drop our child off he is in a safe environment with people who are educated in his care. We do want you to teach him God’s word but at his level. One where he might begin to understand and get a picture of God. A place that is quiet and calm with activities and toys that will stimulate them and yet be a comfort to them. My child puts up with sitting for 1 hour 40 minutes in junior church but he HATES it. I feel so bad for him and reward him each time following. But I hate that he finds church such a miserable place.

    I am told that we don’t have enough workers for the “normal” children so we can devote the time or energy to outreach to your child. I wonder how Christ the creator of this child feels about that. I can tell you after being on the battle front 24 hours a day 7 days a week that by the time it comes time for church it just doesn’t seem to be one battle worth fighting. I can see why parents of other special need children just throw up their hands and say forget it.

    This week our AWANA teachers went to a training. Only 2 teachers out of 50 went to the one on special needs children. When one of them confronted the director he stated its not worth the time as we have no special needs kids. Failing to realize that without outreach to these families of course you are not going to have any. I guess my son was invisible. I just feel bad that people see no need to minister to these families or these children. Why don’t I do the ministry? I am on the front line of the war all week long. I can educate but the running of the ministry will have to be someone with lots of love, patients and energy.

    When we first moved to N Texas I did e mail every church in our community and ask if anyone had a special needs class. Only one church wrote me back to say NO. Now I do know of only 2 in an area of several million who offer anything. I often hear of this or that “unreached people group” and I find it offensive that 1 in ever 100 in our area has Autism. How many families are excluded? They have the highest divorce rate among all parents of children with disabilities. Shouldn’t the church consider that? Maybe instead of ignoring it in hopes it will go away, you should sit at McDonalds and look at the faces of the mama’s. You can always tell the one who as a special needs kid. She is the one who looks much older than she really is. Very tired, and stressed looking. Just looking for some love and acceptance.

    • drgrcevich says:

      Hi Jazzy Life,

      I’m so sorry that you’re not experiencing the level of care and support you need through the church you’re currently attending. But I see evidence from my involvement with the team from Key Ministry that things are changing. We’re getting (and responding to) requests several times a week for help from churches seeking to get better at welcoming, serving and including families like yours.

      Ask other parents of kids with disabilities in your area about their experience with churches. There may be churches in your area becoming very intentional about welcoming families like yours. One of the staff people in my office has a son with autism around the age of your son. They recently changed churches (for reasons unrelated to their son’s disability) and have had a fabulous experience in their new church.

      If the folks at your church would like help, we’re happy to provide training, consultation or resources to them for free. Have them e-mail Katie Wetherbee at katie@keyministry.org in order to connect.

    • Lara says:

      Hi! I can relate! I go to a large church, & my child is the only one that is (still not diagnosed by a professional) a child who displays Autism. He was kicked out of the nursery a few months ago, because they are only suppose to be in there til they turn 4, and he was way past 5 (He’ll be 6 in March), but he wasn’t ready for what they call “Kids Zone” which is 4-11. So now I get to one church service a month. I do nursery once a month, and then take turns with my husband taking our son into Kids Zone every week during church. It is hard & yes, it’s frustrating b/c it feels like there’s no place for our son, but God has a special place for him. So hang in there. Know you’re not alone & that God will do mighty things with your kid & he has a special place in the kingdom….Likely, God will use your child to teach the people at your church a lot of things!!!!

    • sjamgo says:

      Dear My Jazzy Life,

      It’s been awhile since your post, but I’m hoping that you’ve found a church that is inclusive. I know I have and it’s really wonderful. Actually, more than half of our kids in the under 12 age sunday school group have special needs of some sort (ASD, Cerebral Palsey, psychiatric issues/mood disorders/ADHD). We are a small UU congregation, but a very welcoming one and I think that has something to do with it. I’m hoping you have found a more supportive religious environment. i know how it is though with the 24/7 vigilance and the stress it brings. Sometimes it can feel easier to not attend church on Sundays, but my spirit feels so much better when I do, and I know our kids are getting it too. Prayers for you.

  5. Lara says:

    I, too had heard the 80-90% divorce rate in parents with children with Autism. I just Googled the info & came across your article, & I appreciate your research. Though we never had our child “labeled”, it is blatantly obvious he has Autism. It has been hard on our marriage, especially when my husband doesn’t want to admit our child HAS Autism, but we have the Lord & that is all we need to get through this. Besides that, it’s not the end of the world. If my son were “normal” he wouldn’t be the interesting, funny & innocent child he is right now. I just know it. He wouldn’t be my Josiah. So we don’t look at it like the world does. God’s the glue. He makes us stick together.

  6. Susan Leiby says:

    I heard that the 80% statistic was originally something that a legislator threw out one time, and it just stuck. Not based on evidence.

    I’ve also heard that despite the 80% statistic being unfounded, that some studies have shown that when couples have a child with a disability, there IS an increased rate of marital dissatisfaction. Not that they actually divorce, but that they stay married and are just not as happy.

    As the parent of a child with a disability, that doesn’t surprise me. With all the additional stresses placed on our families, there is a chance for more conflict.

    I really would love to see a solid study on this whole topic. Not just as a professional, or as one who works in special needs ministry, but as an affected parent.

  7. drgrcevich says:

    The Freedman article has been published:

    JOURNAL OF AUTISM AND DEVELOPMENTAL DISORDERS
    DOI: 10.1007/s10803-011-1269-y

    Relationship Status Among Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Population-Based Study

    Brian H. Freedman, Luther G. Kalb, Benjamin Zablotsky and Elizabeth A. Stuart

    Abstract
    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.

  8. Stacy says:

    Thank you for using people-first language! Refreshing!

  9. drgrcevich says:

    Our crew always seeks to use people-first language. I think our colleague Harmony is planning a series of blog posts on people-first language later this year.

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  13. Lisa McCarville says:

    From the research show here and the research I have done the results are inconclusive as too how many marriages end divorce with children of special needs. Anedotally I know of many Mother’s of children with special needs where the fathers have left the marriages. I know personally of only one Mother who has.
    Churches could help families by providing either trained aides in Sunday schools who would stay and work with a child in an inclusion class and/or work with a child on a one one situation for confirmation or preparing a child with an intellectual disablity for a religious event such as a Bar Mitsvah or baptism. My son needs help staying on track and needs any lesson broken down into steps where he can understand and succeed.
    I can only attend church if I know my son is safe. He can be a flight risk at Sunday School. Also I do not want to turn my child over to strangers who may not have any experience with a differently abled child.
    I attend a Quaker Church sometimes and I bring my own helper or just stay with my child in his Sunday School Classroom. It is hard for me to be spiritually fed if I cannot attend adult classes or church due to there being no option for me to place my child in a safe and secure classroom with a instructor who knows and can deal with my son.
    Am glad to see this discussion. Disagree that there is no proof that more marriages end in divorce with a special needs kids. There is all kinds of proof, just not many studies done. I have spoken to too many families to know that many people cannot handle the pressures and responsibility of life with a disabled person and they walk out. To me the stats reliablity do not matter as much as that it happens, and the weakest members of our society and most disenfranchised suffer. How many does it take before we realize it is an horrible reality that many families are dealing with.

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  16. JR says:

    I work at a church (not in children’s ministries) where we have many children with disabilities. I think it is worth noting that well-intentioned churches can still find it hard to minister to those with disabilities.
    Challenges:
    1. Children’s Workers are volunteers – if they don’t enjoy working with the kids, they may quit. Working with kids with severe disabilities is difficult work. In my experience the only way this works is if people are specifically recruited to minister to those with special needs. The number of people willing to do this is often not large compared to the need. Sometimes parents of children with disabilities are so used to advocating for their children that they are too forceful and make workers who are doing their best feel guilty about how they handled situations or even make the children’s pastor feel like this is a potential lawsuit — this again leads to workers quitting, etc.
    2. Most churches struggle to recruit enough children’s workers for the basic worker to child ratios required by their insurance company. When you add children that require higher ratios of ministers, that only makes recruitment of enough workers even more difficult.
    3. Children with disabilities often can not be included in classes lower than their age because of safety concerns. The child may have the emotional maturity of a four year old, but since they are eight, they are the size of an eight year-old. Parents of children without disabilities have valid concerns about their children’s safety, and even if the 8 year old is harmless, parents don’t necessarily know this, nor will they be assured by a worker telling them that. If anything ever DID happen the church would also face the liability issue—they would have to show that including an older child with disabilities in a younger class was reasonable (which would be hard to prove once something happened).
    4. Having a “special needs class” is a good idea, but again you can end up with kids with such a variety of special needs and different ages that it is impossible to do anything with them, or is not safe for the smaller ones.

    • JR says:

      Sorry, I forgot to end with: This doesn’t mean churches are off the hook. It is certainly possible to recruit people for special needs and the only two churches I have worked in have done this and I think done it well.

      But I think we need to have compassion for the average church who is just trying to keep their head above water in children’s ministry most of the time. There’s lots of things they could do better that have nothing related to disability, and they’re not doing anything about that either because they just don’t have what it takes (whether time, resources, people, etc). My wife was a children’s pastor for many years and she was constantly working with our ministers on simple things like “always have an object lesson.” After 10 years most of them were starting to do it. Change takes tremendous amounts of work. We need to reach out to everyone, but the “one size fits all” reaches the most people most efficiently, and so many churches fall into that trap.

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