Divorce is always difficult for the children, but what happens when the parents about to split have a child with special needs? According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has grown to 1 in 110 children today, while another CDC study indicates that 1 in 10 children aged 4 - 17 has been diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Combine these sobering statistics with the ever-rising divorce rates and you have a perfect storm of people navigating the very rocky waters of divorce with the added pressure of needing to effectively co-parent a child with special needs long after their marriage is over.
When my daughter was diagnosed with autism at three-years old, my husband and I joined a parents counseling group at the Julia Ann Singer Center in Los Angeles. Coming to terms with this diagnosis and coping with the needs of an autistic child puts a strain on any marriage. If the relationship doesn't have a solid foundation to begin with, the aftershocks of autism often contribute to the eventual demise of the marriage. I know this from firsthand experience: my husband and I were among the more than 50% of couples in our counseling group who later divorced.
From a professional perspective as a family law attorney for close to 30 years, I've seen a dramatic increase in the number of clients who have special-needs children. These clients find it reassuring that I really understand what they are going through. Of course not every divorce lawyer has personal experience parenting a special-needs child, but I'd counsel divorcing parents to work with one who has a specialty in child custody and demonstrates an understanding of the additional challenges their children have.
The Courts award custody based on the guiding principle of what is in the best interest of the child. The Courts consider multiple factors to develop a parenting plan such as the developmental status of the child, the child's temperament and what a child's special needs may encompass.
A parenting plan for the typical child may not be appropriate for an autistic child or one with other developmental issues. For example, it's not unusual for the typical 3 year-old child to be able to have overnight stays with the non-custodial parent. She can understand the concept of time and that she will see her other parent again. The special-needs child often has difficulty with transitions, she is comforted by the familiar and doesn't like changes in environment. Likewise, she may not be unable to express herself verbally nor to understand abstract concepts like time. Custody and visitation decisions for a special-needs child must take into account many issues like these.
In terms of child support, beyond the mandated state guidelines, the Court may order a range of add-on expenses for various therapies (physical, occupational, speech, psychotherapy), special schools, tutoring and medication. Support may even extend into adulthood if it is unlikely that the child will be able to work as an adult.
Raising a special-needs child after divorce requires a high degree of collaboration between the parents. Even without this dynamic, parents will often use a child as a pawn to get back at their ex. A parent may reject a choice of school or camp simply because the other parent supports it. In extreme cases, a parent in denial of the child's needs won't take the child to appointments or administer medication. Putting a special-needs child in the middle of this kind of tug-of-war and manipulation can only have harmful consequences, both to the parent but more importantly to the child.
In cases like this, the Court will often order a co-parenting counselor for one or both parents. These counselors, who can be psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers or marriage and family counselors, will help parents forge a working relationship that puts their child's interests first. For parents who find communicating with each other extremely difficult, tools such as Our Family Wizard computer software allow the court and attorneys to monitor emails between the parents on the child's school, tutoring, doctor's appointments, playdates and other other activities. In this way, the legal team can help ensure that the parenting plan is being followed and the child is getting the support she or he needs.
In addition to rising above the differences with an ex-spouse, effective co-parenting often results in one parent or both making fundamental changes in their own lives. I've seen the prototypical workaholic parents finally learn how to strike a balance between business and family demands, the parent who has a substance abuse problem get treatment and the parent living in a different city relocate to be closer to his child. Beyond giving their children the best chance possible to thrive, these people find themselves better prepared to have a relationship with a new partner, remarry and to once again thrive in their own lives.