Divorce and Autism: They don’t have to go hand in hand. A father’s struggle to heal his son, his family and beat the odds

Let me introduce myself. I’m Emerson Donnell. Born and raised in New Jersey I waited until my 40’s to have a child. Little did I know I was a perfect match, a statistical poster of the typical parent who sires an autistic child, (an older white male living in New Jersey, the state with the highest incidence of autism.) And little did I know after the birth of my son Emerson that my wife Jen and I were being railroaded right into the next widely accepted statistic. Supposedly over 80% of marriages that sire an autistic child end in divorce. Some even say it’s more like 85%. First I wanted to verify if it was true, but in my research I could not validate this “statistic.” However, after being force fed into autism’s meat grinder of financial distress, anger, frustration and heartbreak I don’t doubt it for a second.
When Little Emerson was first diagnosed this specter of collateral damage was relegated as not only unavoidable but something my wife and I simply had to surrender to. I remember wondering why wasn’t anyone addressing this? What’s going wrong and where are the books to help families hold it together? When too many soldiers die on a battle field the commanders and strategists don’t just shrug their shoulders and say “oh well.” No, they sit down, figure out what’s going wrong and set plans to prevent it from happening again.
Now there are many reasons why families divorce even when nothing so tragic happens, but one glaring cause seemed to be revealed from recent research. And I can attest to the findings because I was living this very experience. Recent studies from the University of Florida found most families fall apart because Dads check out. Furthermore, it wasn’t due to the fact his child was autistic, it was how autism was affecting his relationship with the child. They couldn’t connect. It’s not that dads didn’t want to connect, it was that they didn’t know how.
Here’s my personal example of how the nuclear family stricken with autism can suddenly disintegrate. As most dads, I had warm Christmas like visions of my son running to my arms when coming home from a hard day’s work. But every night when I came through the door my hands were left empty. My son was deaf, blind and emotionless to my arrival. There was no response whatsoever. His indifference crushed my very foundation of fatherhood. Autism is so insidious, it can seep into the family fabric and begin to tear it apart before you even realize it’s there. After his diagnosis, I discovered this was very typical of an autistic child, but it still didn’t lessen the pain. Night after night I came home, got into my son’s face and vied for his attention. Inside I begged for some response, anything, a quick glimpse back or maybe even a smile, but each night was the same. I couldn’t rip him out of his thousand mile stare. I was lost. After another night of irrelevance, I remember tossing my car keys on the counter and cursing under my breath. My evening was ruined again and my behavior was about set the whole house into another emotional tailspin. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help but become more detached as hopelessness and depression set in. It’s not that I didn’t want to connect with my son, it was that I didn’t know how. I was becoming overwhelmed, I wanted to “fix” the situation, but had no idea how to go about it.
A father wanting to connect with his child for his own fulfillment may sound like a selfish endeavor, that he’s not thinking of the child’s best interests. But on the contrary. Creating bonds and developing proper emotional responses to a parent may be arguably the most important therapy a child can receive. Recent studies found that when a father learned to connect with his child and “stay in the game” the child’s vocabulary typically increased by over 50%! Furthermore, developing affectionate behaviors early on can help break through the gray shell of autism and bring out the colorful humanity hidden within these children. As a wonderful side effect, learning to connect will help weave the family fabric back together.
This all sounds great, but if you’re a parent struggling with this very problem, I imagine your thinking, so where do I begin? There are so many areas to work on but let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, and revisit the above scenario of family greetings.

Coming home at the end of the day and trying to get into your child’s face in the hope of a reaction is basically a formula for failure. It may not sound very fun, but being calculating and pragmatic is the best approach. The goal here is to get your child out of his world and for your arrival and presence to be relevant to him.

As with any other ABA program you may have to first physically prompt him, but the key is to get the child physically involved in the greeting process. 1. Call your spouse ahead of time so he or she can prepare the environment. Turn the TV off, get any food or drink out of the child’s hands. Start to talk about “Daddy coming home,” and physically get him facing the door. By doing this you are narrowing down distractions and setting up the environment. Dads (or Mom – whomever is coming home) should not simply walk through the door, but knock on the door, call his child’s name. If the child does not respond, mom should help the child walk to the door, physically prompt him to open the door if necessary. (Do not just pick up the child or open the door for them. The goal is to get them involved and participating). Dad should be bent down at his level and come in with a hug.

As a major note, do not expect this to all go smoothly. To put it lightly pulling an autistic child out of his comfort zone to participate in normal affectionate behaviors can be a battle of wills. Expect melt downs, flopping and resistance, but this is unfortunately a natural process of acclimating autistic children to our world. One day may not better than the last, but chances are you will begin to see progress through weeks and months. Also, like other ABA regimens, developing this behavioral habit of coming to the door at the sound of a parent’s voice, opening it and embracing will be infinitely easier to ingrain when they are younger. Autistic children are known for developing “habits” and creating these specific types of habits can have profound positive effects. Though they may not have the capacity to understand the intrinsic good feeling of an embrace, I have found it can be taught and may blossom back in ways never imagined. Finally getting your child to independently run to the door at the sound of your voice will be priceless. This is the stuff that keeps families together working for more.

You may find more information on developing proper emotional behaviors and affection in autistic children in the new book: Dads And Autism, How To Stay In The Game, by Emerson Donnell. It is available on Amazon or directly from www.dadsandautism.com

Thank you

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