Divorce and Visitation: Strategies to Reduce Anxiety

By Nick Malcuit

            The topics of divorce, autism, and blended families are familiar to me and the rest of my family so when a recent discussion began over how to set up a split schedule between divorced parents with children on the spectrum, I felt compelled to look into how much information was really out there on the subject. I must say I wasn’t surprised to see there was a limited amount. However, there were some interesting articles and even more interesting opinions. And that is why it is so important to have the ability to interact, communicate and learn from each other in the autism community. At some point, we’ve all used the expression “I wish there was a manual for this”, but in reality, with such a huge scope of personalities and emotions that make up the Autism Spectrum, that manual would be volumes instead of pages.

            Before discussing visitation and parental scheduling, there’s one issue that’s important to consider as divorce becomes a reality. Hiring an attorney who is experienced with autism is extremely beneficial. Margaret “Pegi” Price and Lisa Helfend Meyer are attorneys, mothers of children diagnosed with autism and are both divorced.  Ms. Price now advocates for families as well and her book, Divorce and the Special Needs Child (A Guide for Parents) talks about the legal issues that need to be addressed in order to focus on the child’s well-being and care. She stresses the importance of having an attorney with knowledge or experience with autism and her book may be helpful for those who have separated and are taking the next step to divorce. In addition, Ms. Meyer asserts, “of course not every divorce lawyer has personal experience parenting a special-needs child, but I'd counsel divorcing parents to work with one who has a specialty in child custody and demonstrates an understanding of the additional challenges their children have.” (Meyer, 2011) These women bring both a professional and personal aspect to this subject and offer great insight and sound advice to parents.  

            Looking at how divorced parents coordinate schedules regarding visitation, two words immediately come to my mind; anxiety and routine. We talk about these two words everyday of our life and adding the stress and uncertainty of divorce just seems to make for an impossible situation. As explained by Lisa Meyer, “The special-needs child often has difficulty with transitions; she is comforted by the familiar and doesn't like changes in environment. Likewise, she may not be unable to express herself verbally nor to understand abstract concepts like time. Custody and visitation decisions for a special-needs child must take into account many issues like these.” (Meyer, 2011) That is why routine, consistency and continuity are so important. Based on our experiences, the initial schedule should be basic and unwavering. Not too many variations and not too complicated, especially during the week when school is in session. Obviously, this depends on the child’s age, level of functioning and coping mechanisms. It is possible to adhere to an every other weekend schedule, similar to many other divorced parents.  However, parents have to realize that their priorities are no longer priorities and have to accommodate the children, not the other way around. Once a schedule is made, post the schedule (in a colorful and decorated way) in the bedroom or kitchen for everyone to see and discuss it with them. It will give the child another focus and could become a means to foster communication. And perhaps the most important aspect of the schedule is to be on time. While most think that goes without saying, unfortunately it does not. I know of a parent who doesn’t commit to a time, uses vague references such as “I’ll be there twelve-ish.” That may benefit the parent, but it does not take into account the amount of added anxiety it causes his son as he anxiously awaits his arrival, pacing (in the form of various activities) till he arrives. This type of stress is not only unnecessary but extremely selfish on the part of the parent.  

            In addition to the schedule, pay attention to the little details. For example, set up the bedrooms exactly the same in each parent’s house, down to the decorating, room colors, and even bedding and linens. If they use computers, make sure a similar one is at the visiting parents’ house. Their favorite meals, snacks and activities should be the same, such as the same DVDs, books and music. In other words, the goal is to have them go from one house to the other without any real major change for them except location. While this may seem a bit tedious and expensive for parents, this will help the children adjust to the change. The premise is that the more that things are the same; the less anxiety for the child. As the children get older things can change but in the initial stages, this routine is important. They need to feel safe and secure at each parents house. And speaking from experience, while duplicating items may seem a bit much, (the child can just bring his favorite DVD for the visit), it can prevent meltdowns and late night trips to go pick up the forgotten item left behind by accident. Trust me! Many of these observations are based on personal experiences of what was done, and unfortunately not done.

            While researching information for this article and looking at not only our personal experiences but those of other families in the autism community, it becomes apparent that when parents of an autistic child divorce it’s easy to quote the talking points and recite how the only concern is the child; but what does that mean? And what does that entail for the parents? All of us as parents need to step back, look in the mirror and be prepared to admit we can do better. You can re-schedule that golf outing or that night out with friends. Schedule these on a day when you are alone. Put your child’s emotional well-being first. The goal is to decrease anxiety as well as eliminate meltdowns and unnecessary stress. “Raising a special-needs child after divorce requires a high degree of collaboration between the parents. Furthermore, putting a special-needs child in the middle of a tug-of-war and manipulation can only have harmful consequences, both to the parent but more importantly to the child.” (Meyer, 2011)

            As explained in Parental Alienation: When the “Best Interest of The Child” Fails, researchers asserted that the detrimental consequences to children do not arise from the divorce itself but rather from how the parents handle the divorce (Gottlieb, 2012). In other words, hostility displayed by divorced parents has more of a negative effect on children than does the actual marital status or living situation. Even more alarming for autistic children is that often they cannot communicate any of those feelings or emotions. Simple things can help such as never discussing the other parent negatively in front of the children. Also, when it’s time for them to go to the other parent’s home, smile, stay positive and encourage them to have a great time. If the child senses you are not happy with the situation, they will pick up on that. And lastly, when the child comes home after spending a weekend away, don’t interrogate them about what went on by asking for a play-by-play account. This will only create more anxiety and can cause the child to withdraw.  While divorce is traumatic for both parents, it can be incomprehensible for a child with autism. As pointed out by Meyer, “rising above the differences with an ex-spouse, effective co-parenting often results in one parent or both making fundamental changes in their own lives.” By working on these positive efforts, it not only “gives their children the best chance possible to thrive, but also find themselves better prepared to have a relationship with a new partner, remarry and to once again thrive in their own lives.” (Meyer, 2011)







Gottlieb, L (2012), Parental alienation: When the “best interest of the child” fails retrieved from

Meyer, L. H. (2011), Divorce and the child with special needs, retrieved from

Price, M. S. (2010). Divorce and the special needs child: A guide for parents. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

© Nick Malcuit 10/2013