Divorce, Autism and Blended Families

by Nick Malcuit


             We’ve all seen the blogs, website posts and advice seekers asking the types of questions that we all asked when we became interested in someone with an autistic child. Can this relationship work? Should I get involved? Is this more than I can handle? These are all valid questions and I can say I asked my own questions when I met my future wife almost 12 years ago and learned she had two children with autism. Not only were there my concerns, but I had two children from my previous marriage. What about them? Were they ready for this new experience?

            My children, now 24 and 21, were overwhelmed when my wife and I first got together. It was difficult for them. As young children themselves; they were going through their parents’ divorce and then had to learn about autism and understand the behaviors of their new siblings. Fortunately, as the relationship moved forward, we all grew together rather quickly and became a family. Now, it is my belief that our children have a lot to offer others about empathy, acceptance and patience. Furthermore, I had no idea how her two boys would change my life, my future, and my view of the world. I realized there was so much to learn about autism in general. After taking a “crash course” and reading several books in the initial years, we then became involved with resources in the area. We read blogs, discovered Special Olympics and other recreational programs. It was then I started to realize that my life would eventually become my career.

            Changing careers in my 50’s has led to some anxiety and been a bit frightening, nevertheless it also has created excitement and opportunities beyond belief. I can’t think of anything more challenging and rewarding than supporting and advocating for families with autism. The goal to create an effective program and organization began when my wife and I thought about the concept of onestep4autism.  It was a result of our personal experiences, life lessons and a passion to communicate with and support other families living with autism.

            Providing support to families with autism is a broad concept, but is needed now more than ever as families struggle for information and answers. Furthermore, when you look at divorce rates among marriages, increasing rates of autism, and the diversity of the family unit, it is apparent we need to further evaluate and expand on current supports and resources. In today’s communities, families have many different faces. There are the so-called traditional families, single parent families, adoptive and foster families, same sex families and blended families. Each shares its own specific dynamic and experience.

            Many marriages sadly end in divorce once a child is diagnosed with autism and as these families move forward and parents get into new relationships, they face new issues and problems. While some re-marry, they often bring other children from a previous marriage into the family creating an additional dynamic for all involved. And unfortunately, many of these couples don’t make it to the wedding as relationships end before they even get started because of the fear, frustration and intensity involved in caring for children with autism while trying to gain a sense of  “normalcy”, as subjective as that may be.

            According to information gathered from, the US Census does not have an accurate reporting method for blended family data and does not specifically track 'step-family' demographics.  Thus the numbers in America appear to be underestimated (Blended Family Statistics, 2010). In terms of families with children who have ASD, there is also limited data. For years the 80% divorce rate was the standard for families of autism. However, in 2010, research by Brian Freedman, Clinical Director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders @ the Kennedy Krieger Institute suggested that number was inaccurate and significantly lower. Nevertheless, unlike many typical families, the risk of divorce is increased in families of children with ASD well in to the child’s transition into adulthood due to the many factors and issues faced during that transition period (Garvin, 2010).

            Looking at documented divorce rates in the U.S., the following information is available.  For first marriages, 41% to 50% will end in divorce. The rate after second marriage rises to 60% to 67% and the rate for 3rd marriages are from 73% to 74% (Divorce Statistics and Divorce Rate in the USA, 2012). What stands out is the rate increases in second and third marriages. Factoring in children to the discussion, there are some interesting trends that emerge. Half of all American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Of those children, close to half will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage (McKinley-Irvin, n.d.) In addition, there is literature which identifies that approximately 50% of all Americans have some kind of step-relationship (Gonzalez, 2009).

            So what do these numbers mean and how do they translate to families with autism? The first thing it points to is a need for additional research. One of the obstacles in reviewing available literature is that basically that there is none, therefore identifying unique challenges faced by families with children who have autism is difficult. Actual research on blended families and autism is virtually non-existent. Currently, relevant studies focusing on aspects of family life with autism, marriage and divorce provide basic insight and a direction for future research.

            The hard data and numbers are not very accurate in painting a clear picture of family life with autism, and an even cloudier one as far as blended families. In addition, we believe step parents and step siblings are an important and often overlooked part of the autism community. However, there are numerous websites, blogs and organizations which provide qualitative, in depth and personal accounts of life and needs. Reviewing that information, one particular theme appears to be the lack of support and resources. As explained on, “the factors that contribute to a divorce in couples facing autism do not necessarily include the diagnosis itself. It can be related to many other things, including the lack of resources and support in the schools and community, the sense of worthlessness at helping a child, the severity of the ASD (which increases without resources) and knowing that there’s more that can be done, but not knowing what that is” (Curie, 2011). Unfortunately, this theme reappears in many articles, blogs and periodicals.

            Another constant theme in the literature on families with autism is the various stressors affecting all members. They can be emotional, physical, medical, and financial. They place a great strain on the entire family and on the parental marriage. Identifying stressors that are unique and relevant to each family structure will be beneficial moving forward since families are more diverse and each situation offers its own perspective. It will be important to frame the research in ways to analyze the qualitative data as it relates to specific family issues. Based on those challenges, specific tools, resources and supports can be developed to assist those who are ready to give up on relationships as well as help overwhelmed families.

            In conclusion, improving communication is one area where families are seeking support and help. In fact, better communication can lead to improved family dynamics and success in dealing with many of the issues living with autism can foster.  “The way a blended family communicates says a lot about the level of trust between family members. When communication is clear, open, and frequent, there are fewer opportunities for misunderstanding and more possibilities for connection, whether it is between parent and child, step-parent and stepchild, or between stepsiblings” (Kemp, et al, 2012). Our family’s journey has been amazing and quite unique, yet it reflects that thinking. We are able to communicate and share our feelings, as well as listen to and respect each other, especially during rough times. And most important, we trust each other. For those struggling, there is hope and there is also support close by. Don’t give up; just reach out for the help.



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Blended family statistics retrieved November 26, 2012 from

Curie, C.A. (2011) Autism, Divorce and Putting Children First, retrieved November 25,2012 from

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Garvin, E (2010) Divorce Rates Debunked in Families with Autism retrieved November 26, 2012 from

Gonzales, J. (2009). Prefamily counseling: Working with blended families. Journal of divorce &

            remarriage, 50(2), 148-157. Retrieved from   4cc5-9210-cf9bbb685bc3%40sessionmgr10&vid=23&hid=104 


Kemp, G., Segal, J., & Robinson, L. (2012, September). Guide to step-parenting and blended families. Retrieved from

Ramisch, J. (2012). Marriage and family therapists working with couples who have children with autism. Journal of marital and family therapy, 38(2), 305-316. Retrieved from 

© Nick Malcuit 9/2013