Divorce and Autism: Some Unique Considerations

There is a saying: “If you’ve met one child with autism, then you’ve met one child with autism”.  This could not be more true—and those of you who are raising a child with autism know exactly what I mean.

Divorce knows no boundaries and is indeed a reality to many families who are raising a child (or children) on the autism spectrum.  Because autism is not a “one size fits all” condition and each child is completely unique, there are many special considerations to address when negotiating a divorce settlement, in addition to the obvious such as living arrangements, special accommodations, etc.

Treatment for Autism

Treatment for Autism is an extremely important element to discuss as part of a divorce settlement.

To this very day, we are still uncertain about the cause or causes of autism and have yet to find a cure.  However, there are many treatments and therapies that are helping children with autism.  Nonetheless, in my experience as the mother of a child with autism, many of these treatments and therapies, while necessary and extremely helpful, are not covered by insurance.

The first consideration is whether the parties agree upon what types of treatments, therapies, special diets and supplements, alternative medicine doctors, etc. (collectively referred to as “treatments”) to expose their child to.  If they do agree, then it is important first attempt to identify whether those treatments are covered by insurance.  If it is clear that they are not, then the next point of discussion should be how to divide such costs.  I say this because just referring to “out of pocket medical expenses” in the divorce agreement will not be clear enough, since many treatments are not considered “mainstream”.  Especially when treatment includes special diets and supplements such as vitamins and minerals and others—all of which are extremely costly.

If the parties do not agree upon what types of treatments to expose their child to, then the agreement should reflect a method for making these decisions going forward.  Is one parent more autism educated than the other, making them the better decision maker?  Is this something to decide on an ongoing basis as new innovations are introduced for the treatment of autism?  Or, is there a doctor or practitioner who specializes in autism that both parties trust to offer sound advice and counsel on an ongoing basis? This is an ever changing field of study and new treatment options are constantly being explored.

Transitioning to Adulthood

Another point of consideration is developing a plan to help transition the child with autism to adulthood.  It is important to plan for all scenarios and to address:

  1. Whether the individual with autism is able to live on their own independently;
  2. Whether the individual with autism is able live on their own with some support (financial, personal or both);
  3. Whether the individual with autism is in need of constant support into and beyond adulthood.

Some children with autism grow to be very independent and obtain a drivers’ license, attend college and hold down a full- time job; while others may fall somewhere below this level of independence and could very well live on their own, but may not be able to afford to financially sustain a life of independence; yet others may always need to live in a supportive environment that provides both personal care and financial support.

If the child transitioning to adulthood will need constant support, is a group home environment an option or could the child continue to live with one or both parents into their adulthood?  If so, what about the out of pocket additional costs?

Will the child who is transitioning into adulthood qualify for government benefits?  As I mentioned earlier, autism affects every person differently and depending upon the degree of disability, an adult with autism may or may not qualify for government benefits at all.  And, even if they do qualify, the amount of benefits may not be enough to sustain a standard of living.  (In determining which, if any, government benefits are available, the parents will need to consult with a special needs attorney who specializes in helping families with autism.)

All of this means that the parties may very well need to develop a plan to support the child into and throughout adulthood, which means extending support past the age of emancipation.

These are just two factors, with many variables therein, to consider when parents of a child with autism are going through a divorce.  As always, do your research and make sure that the professionals engaged to assist in navigating the murky waters of divorce, have the experience and resources to help in the best way possible.

Joelle A. Perez., Esq.
Peacemaker Divorce Mediation
(631) 897-2066