How to Navigate Divorce as the Parent of an Autistic Child


By Nancy Stingle Perkoski, Collaborative Divorce Attorney

When a couple with children gets divorced, protecting their children’s best interest is always the biggest concern. For parents of a disabled child, there are additional considerations that need to be taken into account during the divorce process.

If your child has a diagnosis of Asperger’s, high-functioning autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), our team at Stern Perkoski Mendez wants to ensure you’re fully supported throughout divorce.

In many situations, family court professionals are not aware of the unique circumstances associated with raising a child with a special needs diagnosis. Stern Perkoski Mendez is committed to understanding and advocating for the unique needs of your special needs child. Below are just some of the common considerations for parents of special needs children. When you work with us, we will take the time to get to know you, your child, and your family—and we will ensure that your child’s unique needs are addressed.

I’ve heard parents of disabled children get divorced more often. Is that true?

As a divorce lawyer, one of my particular passions is supporting divorcing parents of children with special needs, especially children with an autism diagnosis. Unfortunately, statistics show that divorce rates for parents of autistic children may be as high as 70% and are significantly higher than parents of a non-disabled child.

Many studies also show that the responsibilities for caring for a disabled child disproportionately fall on the mother in a heterosexual relationship—adding multiple layers of stress to the family and the marriage. The additional stress that parents, especially mothers, face while navigating medical, social and educational services can increase marital conflict.

Unfortunately, divorce often becomes the only option for parents in the challenging situation of raising a special needs child. Our team at Stern Perkoski Mendez is here to support you in approaching divorce with the confidence that you are making the best decision for you and your child.

How do I protect my child with special needs when getting divorced?

At Stern Perkoski Mendez, we understand that restructuring your family and creating a parenting plan for your child may be more delicate and challenging than it is for a “neurotypical” child—and that means every step of the divorce process should exhibit extra care and consideration for your child’s needs. While we wish that all judges, guardians ad litem and evaluators could understand your unique circumstances, this is not yet the case.

Our team is ready to listen fully to what you need to care for your family. Below are just three of the many factors we consider when working with parents of a special needs child.

  1. Financial ImplicationsIt’s estimated that it can cost almost $20,000 more per year to raise an autistic child. Child support and your expense share agreement should account for this and be allocated based on these factors. Child support will cover the basic soft costs of having a child, such as rent/mortgage, utilities, food and clothing. The expense share agreement provides for educational, medical, extracurricular and daycare costs. When raising an autistic child, most of these costs will be higher than the expenses are for “neurotypical” children.

    Your divorce attorney, child professionals and judges should be asking: how and why are these expenses higher for your child, and how can we adjust child support and the expense share accordingly?

  2. Educational ConsiderationsWhen making parenting time and decision making recommendations, guardians ad litem and evaluators must be incredibly thorough. Not every guardian ad litem and evaluator have experience dealing with special needs cases and it is important that your attorney advocates on your behalf to have professionals appointed that have this experience. The decision as to who your child lives with the majority of the time can significantly impact their educational experience. Each school district is different in what special needs opportunities it provides to its special needs students. The evaluators will consider where both parents will live, as well as how the educational opportunities and services compare in both places.

    Additionally, the evaluators will consider how involved each parent has been in their child’s education, will review IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and may talk with the special education directors in each district. This investigation should be done in a much more in-depth manner than it typically would be done with a “neurotypical” child.

  3. Parenting PlanStudies also show that children with special needs may struggle with change and transition—and this is an important consideration when restructuring the family and developing a parenting plan. In many circumstances, evaluators recommend minimizing the number of times your child switches between households while still ensuring that they have the appropriate amount of time with each parent.

    There are several other common factors that evaluators consider, such as if childcare transitions need to happen in private, if other siblings need one-on-one time with a parent, and if guardianship will be necessary when your child turns 18. These are just a few of the many questions your evaluators should explore, and our team will advocate for you and your child to ensure that all factors are considered.

Can collaborative divorce work for me?

Whenever children are involved— especially special needs children—I recommend parents explore the possibility of a collaborative divorce. The collaborative model allows parents to customize solutions unique to each family’s needs and most importantly the needs of the children, with far more cooperation, conversation and creativity than litigation offers. However, sometimes litigation may be the only option.

Contact Our Family and Divorce Law Firm in Evanston, Chicago, Lake Forest and Oak Brook

If you are going through a divorce as the parent of a special needs child, I encourage you to contact our team. We’ll advocate for you and your child and ensure that everyone’s needs are met as fully as possible.

Request a free consultation or call us at (847) 868-9584. We serve clients throughout the North Shore and are happy to meet with you at our offices in Evanston, Chicago, Lake Forest and Oak Brook, or at the most convenient location for you and your family.

For additional information, resources and detailed considerations, read more here.

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For a free consultation, call Stern Perkoski Mendez at (847) 868-9584 or contact us.