HELP: How Can I Best Support My Child with Autism During a Divorce?

HELP: How Can I Best Support My Child with Autism During a Divorce?My husband and I are going through a divorce. Do you have any advice on how we can help our son with autism understand what’s going on and adjust to all the changes? — Christina

Hi Christina,

Man! As if divorce wasn’t challenging enough, throw in there that you have a special needs child!  As we know with children on the spectrum, change is often very difficult.  And with divorce comes so many changes!  New home, new schedule seeing each parent, new holiday traditions, new household routines…so much “new.” Here are some recommendations to help facilitate the change:

1. Priming. This refers to preparing your son for what lies ahead. This can be grand-scheme and day-to-day. For example: tell him if/when you or your husband will be moving out. Tell your son whose house he will be at which days. Letting him know ahead of time about what to expect will help soften these major transitions that are about to occur.

2. Social Stories. Once some of the finer details have been ironed out between you and your husband, you can write a story letting your son know what things will be like. For example: On Mondays I will go to Daddy’s new house. His house is fun. We play Jenga at his house. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I will go to Mommy’s house. Mommy’s house is fun too! We watch Mickey Mouse at her house. Use pictures of the homes and of family members. You can even create social stories down the line when special occasions come up, such as the first separated Christmas. Here are a couple of examples that you can purchase online:

3. Visual Schedules/Calendar. Use a calendar or some other type of schedule to show him which days he will see which parent. Make it fun with real pictures. Here are some examples:

Visual Schedule Calendar

4. Doubles. I hope these ideas help bring some peace to what I’m sure is a very painful and stressful situation. Wishing you the best along this difficult journey.For many kids on the spectrum, they are very attached to routine and familiarity. While it is not the most cost-effective strategy, I recommend getting him duplicates of any items you can so that he can have the same things at both homes. This will help him feel safe and comfortable in the new environment. Having the same items at both homes also helps reduce the risk of forgetting an item at one house. Take inventory of what items your son is particular about and see if you can buy a double. For example: if he has favorite pajamas, buy a second set to keep at the other house. Or if he only drinks from his favorite cup, get one for the other house. This strategy is not something I would recommend for all parents going through a divorce, but for couples with a special need’s child, it’s important to accommodate where you can to help make the transition easier.

5. Highlight the positives! This should go without saying, but do not badmouth your ex-spouse in front of your child. Don’t let your adult issues interfere with your son’s relationships with each of his parents. Remind him how much each of you loves him, and even take the opportunity to praise the other parent. This can be something as small as “Daddy took you to play baseball? Wow, that was a great idea daddy had!” While your son may not appear to be listening to everything you say, I assure you he is still picking up on your tone, attitude, and emotional affect. So it’s important to reflect that you approve of his love for his dad.

This article was featured in Issue 53 – Working Toward The Future

Angelina M.

Angelina M., MS, BCBA, LMFT works as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in assessing and treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays. She began her career in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006, following her youngest brother’s autism diagnosis, and has since worked with dozens of children and families. She also writes a blog about her experiences as both a professional and a big sister. Her brother, Dylan, remains her most powerful inspiration for helping others who face similar challenges.  Learn more about Angelina and her blog, The Autism Onion, at or

  • Avatar Joshua says:

    My wife and I have begun discussing the possibility of divorce (amicably I believe). We have a nine year old son on the Autism spectrum. For various reasons I have no intention of fighting about custody. My biggest question is whether or not I should just let go completely? I love my son very much, but I know how difficult frequent transitions can be for him. And yes it will be very painful for me too either way. Every time I get him, or give him back, or interact with my ex is going to be a painful reminder kind of like picking at a scab too much to let it heal. I’m wondering if it would be better for him, and me to just make a clean break, so that time can eventually dull the pain and confusion for both of us. Then again I am depressed to begin with, and the forth coming prospect of loss doesn’t help, so I’m also wondering if I’m not just wallowing in self-pity. Honestly I don’t think I even want to keep living once the divorce is final, and the financial debts are figured and settled.
    I can’t say anything about that to my wife though. That would just be black-mail. However I need to figure out what’s best for my son. I know I need to figure myself out, but figuring out what to do for my son is the biggest part of figuring myself out.

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