By Michael Rock
It is often said that married couples whose children have developmental or intellectual disabilities will inevitably divorce, as in the recent case of former Alaska Governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and her soon-to-be ex-husband Todd, whose youngest son, Trig, has Down Syndrome. Fortunately, there is no evidence that the divorce rate for parents whose children have such disabilities is any higher than that of the general population.
In fact, a 2007 study at Nashville, Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University suggested that parents who have children with Down Syndrome are less likely to divorce than the national average.
Another common aspect of the myth of an increased divorce rate for parents of children with disabilities is that those whose children have autism have an eighty percent chance of separating. In a 2010 study, Dr. Brian Freedman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute concluded that while parenting a child with autism can put stress on the marriage, there is no reason to believe that such stress will lead to an increased divorce rate.
Interestingly enough, while many assume that such couples who have larger families are more likely to divorce, given that this is the case among parents whose children have no disabilities, a larger family in which a child has a developmental disability may reduce the likelihood of the parents divorcing. By having more kids in such a situation, parents can alleviate some of their own stressors by having their other children take on some of the responsibilities of caring for their siblings with such conditions.
Ultimately, the idea that couples who have children with developmental or intellectual disabilities are all but guaranteed to divorce is largely a product of deeply-ingrained ableism. Rather, when these couples do divorce, it should be seen as an inability for them to work out their differences rather than the product of their children’s disorder.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.