Parents of special needs children face a particularly difficult decision when weighing the possibility of divorce. If you have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), you can expect the need to consider additional challenges as you navigate through the divorce process. It is helpful to know, from the outset of your divorce, the practical goals you may have with regards to developing actionable parenting plans to provide your autistic child with the routine and stability that they require.
WHY IS DIVORCE WITH A SPECIAL NEEDS CHILD MORE COMPLEX?
The rate of divorce among couples is north of 50%, and even higher in marriages that face the daily stress of raising a special needs child or children. The struggles these children face with appropriate communication, interaction with other people, and deregulation of emotions can take a toll on even the strongest of marriages.
Many families that include a child with autism face the reality that extended family or friends are not able to provide childcare or support as may be available with neurotypical children. This is a significant factor why single parenting of a child with ASD can be so difficult. Other reasons include:
- One parent may be more uniquely equipped to provide the constant oversight and supervision the child requires, including managing the daily structure and management of schoolwork, extracurriculars, and emotional handling of social obligations.
- Through the divorce process, splitting of assets and income can have a significant impact on the household budget. As each parent becomes financially independent, and the child moves from home to home, expenses can double as the costs associated with therapy, childcare, medications, and medical appointments become expenses each parent shoulders, instead of being shared as a marital unit.
- If there are other children in the home who are neurotypical, it can be more difficult on a single parent to ensure that each child receives the support, encouragement, and dedicated time that they also need during this period of divorce transition.
WHY HIRE AN ATTORNEY EARLY AND PRIORITIZE A POSSESSION SCHEDULE AND PARENTING PLAN?
It is always better for the children involved to have parents who are working through the dissolution of their marriage amicably. However, many parents find themselves in a place of disagreement and conflict when deciding spousal support or maintenance, living arrangements, division of property, and possession and conservatorship (often known as custody) of the children.
As parents of a child or children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the top and child-focused priority should be developing a structured plan for your child. This structured plan should consider a possession schedule that benefits the child first, then consider the unique needs of the child and which parent is more able to accommodate those needs. When there is disagreement as to what this practically looks like, an attorney familiar with this area of law can assist the parents with providing helpful support and recommendations that bring faster resolution.
In Texas, “custody” is split in to two different and distinct concepts. 1) Possession and access to the child, which is the schedule of when the parents are entitled to physically be with the child; and 2) Conservatorship, which is the ability of the parents to make important decisions on behalf of their child, like medical and educational decisions. Both are important with any child, but deserve some additional considerations when dealing with special needs children.
Founding attorney, Milena Christopher, has a Master’s Degree in Psychology and works with her legal and support team to facilitate these complex situations to be handled with sensitivity and compassion. Consider these ways an attorney may be able to assist:
- Advocacy – A skillful attorney should be able to present to a judge or mediator why “the best interests of a child” are unique when preparing a possession plan.
- Resources – Your attorney may have community organizations, therapists, and educational solutions available for recommendation.
- Readiness – Ensure your attorney is a master at negotiation but always willing to help you fight for what you feel is in the best interests for your child.
- Experience – You should expect your attorney be able to suggest several feasible solutions for possession schedules as well as documents to assist you in drafting what your child’s routine schedule may look like.
- Future Considerations – Part of your forethought may include preparations through Estate Planning for the future needs of your child, including guardianship, trusts, and consistency of care.
The state of Texas generally assumes both parents are equally capable of raising their children. An attorney is especially useful when you feel your spouse will be unable to accomplish necessary routine following, transition support, and maintain scheduled appointments during their parenting time.
HOW DO I TELL MY AUTISTIC CHILD WE ARE DIVORCING?
Autistic children can have different processing mechanisms for social, emotional, and sometimes verbal developments, so the way that you share news of an upcoming separation or divorce may need to be adjusted.
- Specialists recommend ensuring your possession schedule as well as daily living plan for your child are finalized prior to telling them about the separation. Such change can significantly upset the routine world a child with Autism lives in. To avoid undesired consequences, make a plan.
- Allow both parents to speak to the child at the same time, preventing misunderstandings and intense fears the parents are no longer working together.
- Make your schedule for the upcoming weeks more flexible than usual. Your child may have difficulty in school, avoid going to social activities, and feel more disrupted than usual.
If your child has a therapist, be sure to confide in them as to what is going on, as they can be instrumental in assisting your child in navigating the upcoming changes and transitions, and be able to direct the time they spend with your child to better help with forthcoming adjustments.
WHAT ARE SOME IDEAS TO CONSIDER ABOUT POSSESSION SCHEDULES IN TEXAS?
For parents, the idea of not seeing your child daily is oftentimes the most painful aspect of divorce or separation. A helpful way to reframe this part of the divorce process is to focus on seeing the time away from your child as an opportunity to recharge your batteries and being able to give them the best version of you when you do have possession.
Many autistic children require strict and rigid schedules during their days and weeks, and it is critical to inform your attorney of the unique circumstances that your child may require which may inhibit your (or your spouse’s) ability to provide the needed structure to your child. Some things that may inhibit the ability of one or both parents include things like work schedules, travel requirements, routine engagements, or unwillingness to fully participate in the recommended or necessary levels of care. The Law Office of Milena Christopher has assisted clients in forming innovative and creative solutions for their specific situations, including:
- Since people with Autism tend to struggle with transitions, parents may need to consider sharing a single residence for the child. This process is called “nesting” and while often extremely difficult on parents, it may offer your child the stability and routine required.
- Many parents consider shorter parenting time spans than week-on-week-off. Options such as 2/2/5 and other variations, enabling parents to avoid caregiver fatigue.
- Consider allowing each parent assigned responsibilities, such as who takes the child to what activities, doctors’ appointments, etc.
Your situation may be different, and the Law Office of Milena Christopher is available to help you work through and identify the best solutions for your specific situation. These can be discussed upon retaining the attorneys at the Law Office of Milena Christopher, as we work with you to identify practical strategies as you move forward in the divorce process. The above scenarios are not intending to be legal advice or recommendations, but rather ideas that can make your first attorney consultation productive.
WHAT SHOULD BE MY FIRST STEPS?
Ensuring the safety of your children and yourself is always the first priority. If you or any members of your household are at risk for physical or mental harm, contact the appropriate authorities or a trusted family member or friend.
Once you have made the decision to move forward with divorce or separation, or if your spouse has made that decision for you, The Law Office of Milena Christopher recommends the following initial steps to keep both you and your children safe:
- Talk to your therapist! If you don’t have one, get one.
- Take appropriate steps for your self-care so you can be the best you for your child(ren).
- Speak to your child’s therapist and create a plan.
- Whenever possible, align with your partner on the priority of care for your Autistic child.
- Consult with an attorney to determine how to move forward most effectively with your plans.
According to the CDC, 1 in every 36 children have been identified on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), occurring in every demographic – racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic. Parents embrace both the honor and the burden of either directly providing care for their child or relying on outside caregivers. This causes a huge strain on family dynamics.
Whatever phase of separation or dissolution you may be in, there’s always value in consulting an attorney with experience in special needs and mental health disorders.
The Law Office of Milena Christopher offers clients in Hays, Blanco, and Travis counties the comforting experience of working with a team deeply rooted in child-first mediation negotiation strategies. If you’re preparing for divorce and have a child with autism, please contact us today.