Part 4 in our series on Autism and Family Life

Divorce. Autism. Single Parenting.

These are three things we don’t ever think will happen to us when we’re newly married – or new parents – or newly diagnosed.

As noted in our last blog on autism and marriage, having a child with autism certainly does not mean that your marriage won’t last yet it’s obvious that autism brings many additional stressors to a marriage. And like parents of typically-developing kids, sometimes our marriages do end in divorce.

Single parenting is a tough job. For parents of kids with autism, flying solo can feel like piloting a single-engine plane in turbulent skies.

I couldn’t find any research on single parenting a child with autism, but I did run across blogs and perspective pieces on the subject. To get some insight into the unique aspects of being a single mom or dad, we did an informal survey of local single parents. Some identified themselves as single parents whose ex shares in child-rearing while others identified as single without any involvement from their ex. Here’s what they had to say.

How long have you been a single parent?

Parent Responses: Ranged from six to ten years

What is the most difficult thing about single parenting? 

Parent Responses:

  • Exhaustion from doing everything by myself
  • Maintaining a full time job
  • Coordinating and paying for therapies
  • Financial stress
  • Judgment from others about my child’s behavior
  • Losing friends and family
  • Feeling so isolated
  • People don’t “get it”
  • People tell me to “take care of myself” but I have no one to take my place so I can
  • Stares and unkind words when in public
  • Can’t afford or find childcare for my child so it’s just me all the time
  • Can’t work due my child’s needs so I am in poverty
  • Super-human amount of work involved in every aspect of my child’s care
  • Hardest thing is to feel I’m not failing either of my children because I never feel I’m doing enough or everything I should be
  • Need for constant supervision and challenging behaviors is very isolating and exhausting
  • Can’t do the simplest of things (going to the bathroom, taking a shower, answering the phone) because my child might elope, get on a bus, stuff himself with food and then throw up – these things have happened
  • Some of my married friends are envious of my “time off” when their father has our kids. When I have them though, it is full-on, no buffer, no break, no back-up.

Where do you find support? 

Parent Responses:

  • ALLY – Autism, Living Life & You support group
  • Single friends who don’t have children
  • Friends who “get it” and support me, accept me
  • Close family
  • I have to compartmentalize to create time for myself – which was impossible for many years. I used to hate when people would tell me to “be sure you make time for yourself”.
  • Have found wrap services and support groups unhelpful
  • My child’s aggressive behavior prevents me from using respite
  • Local online groups
  • Other moms of kids with autism who understand when it takes me a week to reply to an email or need to cancel at the last minute
  • I am deliberate about carving out time to do things that make me feel good

What have you learned/gained from single parenting? 

Parent Responses:

  • More aware of using positive parenting – finding ways to connect vs. angry/punitive reactions
  • I’m more mindful of daily interactions and successes
  • More aware of dollars well saved and spent on therapies and investing in my child’s future
  • That I have strength and courage I didn’t know I had
  • That it isn’t the end of the world even if some days it feels like it
  • That it’s okay to ask for help
  • To thank people for their knowledge and support
  • That it’s good for me to pay it forward with others
  • I have developed excellent advocacy skills
  • That I can’t do everything myself!
  • To let go of lots of things that would have seemed important to me before
  • To prioritize
  • To get through a day on very little sleep – over and over again
  • That lots of what I think I ought to do for my children turns out to not be crucial. Family dinners went out the window a long time ago!
  • I’ve gotten to know some amazing people, other parents who are making it work (or at least surviving) with a sense of humor and hope intact. I never stop seeing this as a miracle, honestly, because I know how close to the edge we all run, all the time.
  • Some skills I didn’t know I had –in terms of supporting others emotionally through hard times or communicating about this life when I’ve had the opportunity – to groups of students going into a helping profession
  • I appreciate the unplanned, unpredictable moments of quiet that emerge in the chaos – when folding clothes or cooking
  • I’ve learned to roll with the punches and live in the moment
  • The positives and not so positives for my other child

What tips might you offer to new single parents? 

Parent Responses:

  • Sleep when you can, where you can
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff –so much is small stuff
  • It’s okay to buy disposable so you don’t have to do dishes
  • Don’t be afraid to seek counseling
  • Don’t speak ill of your ex –kids hear everything!
  • Our kids sometimes feed off our emotions whether they can articulate it or not – my child feels my pain and my joy
  • Read! Knowledge can be empowering
  • Read! A good novel can be a much-needed escape
  • Remind yourself that you are not a bad parent and that there are reasons your child is struggling. In fact, you go above and beyond!
  • The diagnosis can be scary but it also helps to understand why your child does what he does
  • Reach out to at least one support group or other parent of a child with autism – those conversations will keep you sane
  • Learn about IEPs from Wrightslaw
  • Sign up for DDD even if you hear there are no paid services
  • Get help in navigating health insurance when it comes to therapies
  • Start by realizing autism is a forever thing and you have to pace yourself. There is no urgency
  • Redo your To Do List to cover the absolute basics and include finding an hour to yourself – not doing laundry or dishes or making appointments for your child
  • Get rid of anyone in your life who causes additional stress. Real friends are the ones who “get it” and you don’t have to explain to them
  • Don’t volunteer for anything unless you know it will actually feed you in a significant way
  • Focus on what your child does well
  • Don’t force friendships or a lifestyle that isn’t consistent with autism
  • Focus on what you can realistically handle

Is there anything else you want us to know about single parenting? 

Parent Responses:

  • It’s okay to date and do things for yourself. In fact, you’ll be a better parent if you do
  • Autism is all consuming, but you can learn to weave times of pleasure in with all the work
  • Make time for your other children. Sibshops at Seattle Children’s are great!

We’d like to thank our parents who contributed their thoughts and feelings to this blog. Are you a single parent of a child with autism? Share your story with us. You will find you’re not alone.

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